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Mind of Mike: Scattershooting the Big Ten title game

CLASS OF 2019 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | State | Position | Team

CLASS OF 2020 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | State | Position

MORE: The best and worst performances of Week 13

The Mind of Mike is a scary place. So we thought we’d go there to get his thoughts on Ohio State's match up with Northwestern in Big Ten title game.

... On paper, when you consider recruiting rankings and all of that, this should not be a close game. Since 2016, the Wildcats have landed two players ranked four-stars or higher while Ohio State has landed 66 by my count. That’s an astonishing difference.

... There was some concern coming into this season in Columbus regarding the quarterback position with J.T. Barrett exhausting his eligibility, but Dwayne Haskins erased those worries. Coming off a 318-yard, five-touchdown performance against Michigan, he seems to be in top form heading into the Northwestern game. Haskins was a Rivals100 quarterback coming out of high school who had been committed to Maryland and I wasn’t sold on him being a superstar at Ohio State. Clearly I was wrong as he has set Big Ten records this season and been outstanding.

... It may be odd to say the quarterback of a team playing in a conference title game needs to step up, but Clayton Thorson needs to do exactly that if the Wildcats have a chance to pull off the upset. He has managed the offense well, but will need to put the Wildcats into positions to score more points against the talented Buckeyes defense, which woke up during the Michigan game. Thorson, a four-star out of high school in 2014 and one of the highest-ranked players on the Northwestern team, has 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season and has been average at best. The Haskins-Thorson matchup is a clear advantage for Ohio State.

... Defensive lineman Joe Gaziano is the anchor of the Northwestern defense, which has been very strong against the run. He, along with linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, will need huge games in order to slow down Ohio State's spread rushing attack. Gaziano played for Xaverian Brothers in Massachusetts, a Boston College pipeline, and spurned the Eagles to head off to Northwestern in the 2015 class. Gallagher also hails from Massachusetts while Fisher is from Texas. Northwestern has done a very good job of out-of-state talent evaluation to fill out their roster.

... Perhaps the best way to break down this game is to look at a couple of common opponents. Northwestern lost at home to Michigan in a close game in which the Wildcats led for quite some time, while you know what Ohio State just did to the Wolverines. However, Northwestern beat Purdue on the road in the season-opener, while the Buckeyes got crushed at Purdue. The thought process is that if Northwestern can keep this a sloppy, low-scoring game they could have a chance to pull an upset, although I don’t see that happening.

... The Wildcats’ offense is lacking in big-play potential, which has been the weakness of the Ohio State defense, but Flynn Nagel gives them a player who can give opposing defense fits. The senior is having his best season this fall with 66 receptions for 748 yards and two touchdowns. He has also become Thorson’s security blanket, as he often looks for him in big spots. Look for Northwestern to find ways to get the ball in Nagel’s hands as often as possible if he’s healthy. He missed the season finale against Illinois, but should be good to go on Saturday.

Isaiah Bowser and Clayton Thorson
Isaiah Bowser and Clayton Thorson (AP Images)

... It took Parris Campbell some time to fully reach his potential in Columbus, but in 2018 he has become one of the more dynamic receivers in the conference. Now with 71 receptions for 825 yards and 10 touchdowns, his improved level of play has also continued to help Haskins evolve. Campbell was a very raw four-star athlete out of LeBron James’ high school back in 2014 with great speed but some question about his ball skills.

... One of the few non four-stars on the Buckeyes' roster is Chris Olave who had a big game against Michigan. The skinny wide receiver out of California could play a huge role in the Northwestern game as well and is starting to come into his own.

... The running back duo at Ohio State is interesting. J.K. Dobbins was ranked as a high four-star out of high school despite missing his entire senior year with a broken ankle. There were debates on our rankings calls whether or not to drop Dobbins a bit more because of the injury but his upside was too great. He was ranked only behind Najee Harris (Alabama), Cam Akers (Florida State) and D’Andre Swift (Georgia). Mike Weber, if you remember, committed to Ohio State after previously being committed to Michigan. He nearly re-committed to Michigan when Jim Harbaugh was hired but stuck with Ohio State only to find out that running backs coach Stan Drayton took an NFL job the day after he signed. Urban Meyer, of course, smoothed things over with Weber and his coach in the end, but it was quite the story at the time.

... Northwestern senior defensive back Montre Hartage has quietly established himself as one of the top cover corners in the Big Ten over the last three seasons. However he missed the game against Illinois with an injury, which is a concern leading up to the Big Ten title game. He is among the leaders in the conference this season with 11 pass break-ups, to go along with 47 tackles and an interception, and he should be one of the key contributors for the Wildcats against the Buckeyes. Hartage was a two-star prospect out of high school in Georgia in 2015 with one Power Five offer – Northwestern.

... Losing a player of the caliber of Nick Bosa, a former five star, would cripple most college defensive lines, but at Ohio State the loss hasn't been that devastating. This is mainly due to the play of younger players like Chase Young and Jonathan Cooper, plus the continued leadership of Dre'Mont Jones. The defensive line has a ton of talent, but it’s the linebackers and secondary that have struggled a bit. If Northwestern can get to the second level, this could get interesting.

... When Jeremy Larkin announced his retirement from football due to his career-ending injury early in the season, the Northwestern running game took a big hit. And while it struggled in the weeks that followed, the Wildcats found a savior in true freshman Isaiah Bowser, who has thrived in that lead back role. Now with 10 touchdowns, six on the ground and four through the air, Bowser has become a huge part of the offense. Bowser was a big pickup out of Ohio in last year’s recruiting cycle.

... Northwestern has been an underdog six times this season, finishing up with four victories in those games and close losses to Michigan by three points and Notre Dame by 10 points. The Wildcats started the season 1-3, which included a home loss to Akron when they gave up a season-high 39 points.

... Prediction time: Ohio State 38, Northwestern 20