Late last Saturday night, Northwestern junior cornerback Jeff Backes lay still on the Wildcats' 11yard line. While he was being tackled on a kickoff return, his right knee and ankle had buckled, but with his team and Ohio State tied 27--27 with 1:54 left in regulation, Backes, an Ohio native, peeled himself off the turf and got ready for overtime. "Unless I couldn't walk, I was going back into the game," says Backes, who continued playing despite an ankle sprain.
Backes's perseverance helped unranked Northwestern shock the seventh-ranked Buckeyes, 33--27, in the year's biggest upset. The Wildcats (2--3)--who hadn't beaten Ohio State in Evanston since 1958--had been pointing to this game as an opportunity to turn around a frustrating season. They had suffered two heartbreaking losses, 48--45 to TCU in double overtime and 30--21 to Arizona State, and been embarrassed 43--17 by Minnesota. "We had had moments of special play and moments that led people to say, Who are these guys?" says coach Randy Walker. "So we zeroed in on executing and responding when we're down."
Ohio State, meanwhile, was due for a stumble. The Buckeyes were 3--0 but struggled at times, and behind inexperienced sophomore quarterback Justin Zwick their offense was ranked 80th in the country entering Saturday's game. Outplayed by the Wildcats for most of the game, Ohio State had to come back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit (an effort seemingly stymied with 4:55 left when Backes picked off a Zwick pass on the Northwestern goal line) to force overtime.
Though the Buckeyes had won four overtime games over the last three seasons, they came up short this time. Normally reliable kicker Mike Nugent missed a 40-yard field goal on the opening series, setting the stage for Northwestern senior tailback Noah Herron, who wears number 33, to find the end zone on his 33rd carry of the game, from one yard out, and push his team past Ohio State for the first time in--you got it--33 years.
It was an ideal evening for the Wildcats, 11 of whom grew up in Ohio. Backes, for one, rooted for the Buckeyes as he rushed for a state-record 3,354 yards at Upper Arlington High. But on signing day Ohio's Mr. Football passed up Ohio State for the school that he felt had a better premed program. "I also wanted to play for a team where I could really have an impact," says Backes, who has already been accepted into Northwestern's medical school. Backes made his impact felt on Saturday. Says Walker, "Jeff will be able to go home this summer and hold his head high."