By Mike Williams | @MikeWritesSport
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State’s controversial football season, which involved the university community in a contentious national conversation about domestic abuse, ended with the celebration of a 37thBig Ten conference championship, and third in five seasons, after a 45-24 victory over Northwestern Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Buckeyes (12-1), who finished sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings, will meet Washington in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. They were led by another record-setting performance by sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins, Jr., whose 499 passing yards gave him a conference record of 4,702 yards of total offense. Haskins threw for a championship game record five touchdowns and completed 34 of 41 passes for a record percentage of .829. His ninth 300-plus yard game and fifth of 400 or more are also Ohio State records.
Northwestern (8-5), the West Division champion for the first time, was within seven points early in the fourth quarter. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson completed 27 of 44 passes for 267 yards. For Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, a leader on the 1995 Big Ten champions, the appearance in the conference title game was an important achievement. “I look forward to being here every December,” said Fitzgerald. “For the maturation of our program, this was the next step.”
Junior defensive end Joe Gaziano expanded on Fitzgerald’sthought. “They brought the standard of coming to Indianapolis,” he said. “It was a powerful message and wherever we end up in a bowl game we know that we are going to attack that.” Northwestern will meet Utah at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
Ohio State’s conference championship brought the Buckeyes within five of Michigan’s record of 42. “I’ll never forget this team,” Meyer said. “That’s not shortchanging the other Big Ten champs and the other championship teams we’ve had. But…it’s very odd to have fifth-year seniors come back. And they came back with a purpose. They wanted a ring and be back-to-back Big Ten champs and they were.”
Meyer was suspended for the first three games of the season after the school investigated his handling of allegations of domestic abuse involving former assistant coach Zach Smith. Meyer missed victories against Oregon, Rutgers, and TCU. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day led the team in his absence.
The Buckeyes also overcame key injuries on the road to winning the Big Ten championship. “I’ve never been more proud of a group of people, my players and staff,” said Meyer. “To stick together the way they did, all the way from early in the season to losing arguablythe best player in America, Nick Bosa.” Bosa, the 2017 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, was lost for the season following surgery to a core muscle injured in Ohio State’s 40-28 win over TCU on Sept. 20. He eventually withdrew from the school to focus on the NFL Draft.
Wide receiver Austin Mack was sidelined after having surgery to repair damage from a left foot injury sustained in the unexpected 49-20 loss at Purdue on October 20. Senior offensive guard Demetrius Knox’s collegiate career ended early in the final minutes of Ohio State’s 62-39 win over Michigan with a Lisfranc injury in his foot. Knox elected to delay surgery to be able to watch the Big Ten Championship from the sidelines.
After the game, Knox was moving around via a knee cart and celebrating with the team after the game. “Doctors told me that holding off surgery was unusual,” he said in the locker room. “They asked if I could deal with the pain, and I didn’t want to miss being with my team.”
Ohio State will make its first Rose Bowl appearance since 2010, when the Buckeyes, led by coach Jim Tressel, defeated Oregon. After their victory over Northwestern, the Ohio State players recognized that their post-season destination was beyond their control as the College Football Playoff selection committee met in Grapevine, Texas.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can tell them to make our case better at this point,” said wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who caught touchdown passes of 16 and 42 yards. “The games are over, and it’s up to them. It would be disappointing to not play for a championship, but it’s hard to be upset about a chance to play in the Rose Bowl.”
The Buckeyes realized that while contending teams Alabama, Georgia and Clemson had played before their game, the results elsewhere had little impact on their preparation. “Honestly, it’s a good thing for college football,” said junior defensive tackle Dre’MontJones. “We watched some of the games today as a team. Honestly, those outcomes don’t matter if we didn’t win tonight, so that was our focus. You play sports to win titles, so obviously you want to play for the biggest title. It’s hard to say ‘The Granddaddy of Them All’ is a consolation prize with the history and prestige of that bowl game.”
In 17 years of coaching, seven at Ohio State, and three national championships including one at the University of Florida, Meyer has yet to coach in the Rose Bowl. It’s been a dream of Meyer’s since he entered coaching. “It’s amazing,” said Meyer. “I’ve never coached that game. It that’s where we end up, we’d be so proud to be there. And I know our players would feel the same.”
When given the opportunity to politic for a spot in the playoff early Sunday morning, Meyer reflected on the task ahead of the committee. “It’s a toughsituation they’re in,” he said. “There’s a lot of great football teams out there. We’re one of those teams.”