INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey grew up around the Ohio State mystique, the son of a high school football coach in Cincinnati.
As others in the football-crazed state gathered round television sets to watch their beloved Buckeyes each weekend, Ramsey was never much of a fan. Still isn't.
So on Saturday, the quarterback for No. 15 Northwestern will try to cap his college career by knocking No. 3 Ohio State off its Big Ten perch — and perhaps out of the playoff.
“I was a Notre Dame fan growing up, but I was a Big Ten fan," Ramsey said. “This will be my fifth time playing against them, it’s always been exciting. It’s always been fun to go out and compete against the big boys."
Even if the first four tries didn't exactly go Ramsey's way, all four while he was suiting up with Indiana. When he transferred to Northwestern after last season, it looked like Ramsey might be finished with the Buckeyes (5-0 Big Ten, No. 4 CFP).
Instead, Ramsey won the starting job and led the Wildcats (7-1) back to their second Big Ten championship game in three years.
The reward: Another date with East Division champion Ohio State.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes pulled away from Northwestern late to secure a 45-24 victory and a school-record tying second straight outright title. Now, they're back looking to make it four in a row — and another playoff shot.
Ohio State has hung onto the No. 4 spot in the rankings for weeks and though some have argued the ACC should get two teams in — No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 4 Clemson — Ohio State coach Ryan Day insists his team belongs.
“We’ve had an amazing amount of challenges, way more than anybody else in the country, in my opinion," Day said. “The minute we went back in inside in November, December the (COVID-19) numbers just jumped through the roof. We’ve had disappointments, we’ve had games canceled, we’ve had the season canceled.
“We have really talented young men who stuck together," he added. “And if people can’t see that, then that’s their problem.”
And now, all that stands in the way is a group of Ohio high school graduates — running backs Isaiah Bowser and Cam Porter, Ramsey among them — and a team hungry to prove it can achieve the unthinkable.
“We’re really excited," Ramsey said. “My teammates are really excited, family’s really excited to go out and compete and have fun.”
FIELDING HEISMAN QUESTIONS
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year even though it appears another preseason goal — winning the Heisman Trophy — appears unattainable.
Fields was a finalist last year and has again played well this season, completing nearly 80 percent of his throws with 15 TD passes in five games. and all three of his interceptions came in a 42-35 victory over No. 7 Indiana.
But Fields insists he’s not bothered.
“I tend to focus on things that I can control,” he said. “The number of games or whatever comes into effect in winning that award, I can’t control that. What I can control is going out there and playing my hardest for my teammates and my brothers to try to put together a good game.”
LEANING ON DEFENSE
It's no secret why the Wildcats are back in the title game.
They rely on defense.
Northwestern has allowed a league-low 14.6 points per game, just 4.1 points in the second half and is ranked in top five in conference play against the pass, against the run and overall.
And Big Ten linebacker of the year Paddy Fisher is one of three Wildcats with 200 or more career tackles, making Northwestern the only power-five school to hold that distinction.
This season has been tough on everyone, but Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis believes the twists and turns have given players some a different perspective on life.
“I definitely learned to be more appreciative of the game of football and life itself,” he said. “So many people lost their lives unfortunately this year to COVID. And then on the other half, the football aspect, people not being able to play after they get COVID because of the heart condition. It’s just crazy. It’s made me more grateful for my life.”
Davis, the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year, was one of three Ohio State linemen named first-team all-conference. The Buckeyes are averaging a conference-high 251 yards rushing per game.
AP Sports Writers Mitch Stacy and Andrew Seligman also contributed to this report.