EVANSTON, Ill. -- The lights were on. The stage was set. And the weather, for the most part, cooperated once the game finally took place. For Northwestern, the only thing that was missing from Saturday was a win.
Standing in the way was an Ohio State team riding a 17-game winning streak. The Buckeyes were more physical and more athletic, and they’ve taken opposing teams’ best shots for years. Eventually, that process takes its toll, and an upset will inevitably occur.
Northwestern almost pulled one off on Saturday night, but the Wildcats fell 40-30.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team got pushed around in the trenches, and a sea of scarlet-clad fans once again made its way to Ryan Field. But this game had a different feel than the typical Ohio State games fans are accustomed to seeing under Urban Meyer. Bradley Roby scored on a first-quarter punt block, but where previous Northwestern squads might have folded, this iteration of the Wildcats responded. Northwestern drove down the field for a touchdown on its ensuing possession.
It was almost as if Northwestern expected to win. And that’s saying something considering the Wildcats haven’t beaten Ohio State since Oct. 2, 2004. Northwestern didn’t seem to care that Ohio State was ranked No. 4 in the country, had a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Braxton Miller and featured numerous future high-round NFL draft picks on both sides of the ball.
“I just remember growing up and there was a perception of Northwestern,” Meyer said, “and I think there still is sometimes. […] They’re well coached, they don’t make mistakes and it’s all correct. They’ve got very, very good players, borderline great players at some positions and a scheme that’s hard to defend.”
Every time Ohio State seemed to make a run, the Wildcats bounced back. In fact, when Miller lost a fumble at the seven-yard line with 7:42 remaining in the third quarter, it seemed like the upset was actually going to happen.
This was Northwestern's game and Northwestern's moment. It had every intention of owning it, and through three-plus quarters, it did.
But the Buckeyes have now won 18 consecutive games for a reason. After a penalty put Ohio State in great field position following a Wildcats' punt, running back Carlos Hyde cut the lead to 23-20 with a four-yard score. The Buckeyes seemed to realize they could win the battle up front, and Hyde promptly took over. The senior -- who was suspended for the season's first three games and got emotional in his postgame press conference -- carried 26 times for 168 yards, including several critical first-downs.
“He’s a very explosive running back with a very explosive and experienced line in front of him,” Northwestern linebacker Damien Proby said. “We did our best today.”
Hyde added another touchdown on the heels of a Doran Grant interception to give Ohio State a 27-23 fourth-quarter lead, but the Wildcats responded again, using a 67-yard Rashad Lawrence catch-and-run to get into the red zone. On third down, Trevor Siemian connected with Cameron Dickerson for a 12-yard score.
Yet one more power drive and Hyde's third touchdown of the day sunk the 'Cats, who couldn’t convert a critical fourth-and-one that all but sealed their fate. Northwestern got the ball one more time with under a minute to go, and Ohio State recovered a fumble in the end zone on the Wildcats' last-gasp play to, however improbably, cover the spread.
Northwestern has been on a slow build since Fitzgerald took over as head coach in 2006. Last year brought a 10-win season and the program's first bowl victory since 1949. While it would be an accomplishment to make the school bowl eligible on a consistent basis, Fitzgerald has bigger aspirations: to win the Big Ten for the first time since the team was a co-champion in 2000.
“We’re close,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re knocking on the door. We just have to knock that bad boy down. All of our goals to my right are still ahead of us, and I think we showed everybody in this conference and the country this group of young men can play.”
That goal isn’t out of the question yet. If the Wildcats can take care of business the rest of the way, they’d likely earn a shot at Ohio State again, a matchup both Fitzgerald and Proby would embrace.
Northwestern has never been to the NCAA basketball tournament. The student enrollment is by far the smallest in the league. The Wildcats will seemingly always be an underdog, and the role seems to suit them just fine. Years later, fans and former players will talk about this game in the same way they talk about the other pivotal moments in the school's athletic history. It was another one of the almosts. The could-haves. The why-couldn’t-wes.
“We didn’t play this game or approach this game for the media,” Proby said. “We played this for ourselves. We wanted to prove something to ourselves. That’s something we still need to do, but we defnitely took a step in the direction we wanted to.”
With the victory, the Buckeyes will continue their quest for an undefeated season and a shot at the national title. It's impressive, but it's certainly nothing new. Saturday night's result may have said more about the new perception college football at large should have about Northwestern.