In a game many thought they had no chance to compete in, Northwestern (4-4, 3-2 B1G) gave No. 6 Ohio State (7-1, 4-1 B1G) its very best effort to the very last minute in Columbus. But in the end, the Buckeyes' athleticism and push up front allowed OSU to put the game away and escape with a 24-20 win.
Northwestern came into this game with a three-game winning streak, but were 27-point underdogs in Vegas this week. Ohio State was coming off of its first loss of the season to Penn State, causing many to assume the Buckeyes would be 'playing angry' and easily blow the Wildcats off the field. This was about as far from the case as possible.
"These are games you want to come away with," safety Godwin Igwebuike said after the game. "But let it be known, if you play us, you're going to have to battle. There's no walking over us, there's no getting past us without a scratch ... regardless of who you are."
But in their first possession, the Buckeyes carved up NU's defense, making it seem like they would cover the large spread. An easy nine-yard, 94-yard drive put them up 7-0. Then an interception by quarterback Clayton Thorson on the very next drive set up an easy field goal for Ohio State, who found itself up 10-0 midway through the first quarter and, seemingly, securely in the driver's seat.
But something not all that atypical (anymore) happened near the end of the first quarter; Northwestern's offense started clicking. Thorson and the gang put together a 16-play, 75-yard drive, punctuated by a QB sneak from the 1-yard-line that cut OSU's lead to 10-7 at the beginning the second quarter. Ohio State responded with a touchdown of its own, but Northwestern refused to lay down, answering with a field goal to keep it a one-score game.
Then it was NU's defense's turn to step up. The 'Cats forced three straight OSU punts, and were able to close out the half trailing by just seven.
Ohio State, and notably runningback Mike Weber, bullied the 'Cats up front for most of the first half, but the Buckeyes were reluctant to test NU's depleted secondary (for some reason).
NU's defensive resurgence continued into the second half, as they swarmed to the ball and forced two more punts out of the Buckeyes early in the third quarter. That was just the breathing room NU's offense needed. Thorson and wide receiver Austin Carr (who reeled in 65 of his 158 receiving yards on this drive) co-authored an 84-yard scoring push to tie the game at 17 late in the third quarter. Garrett Dickerson capped it off with a three-yard catch for the tying score.
The Buckeyes found themselves knotted at 17 with a confident, hungry Northwestern team as the fourth quarter got underway, and Ohio Stadium was audibly stunned.
After trading punts at the start of the fourth quarter, Ohio State finally opened up its deep game. Quarterback J.T. Barrett found K.J. Hill wide open along the left side of the field for a 34-yard gain that set the Buckeyes up at NU's 10-yard-line. Curtis Samuel punched it in two plays later, breathing life into a dormant, yet very large crowd (107,296).
In need of a response, per usual in this game, Northwestern, well, responded, driving all the way down to Ohio State's four-yard line. But a holding call and some errant throws (one on a trick play) forced head coach Pat Fitzgerald to make the call to kick a 33-yard field goal. Jack Mitchell executed, making it 24-20 with 3:35 remaining.
Thorson praised his offense's improvement and poise after the game, but lamented a few missed chances close to the goal line that he said he felt cost NU the game.
"We had first down at their four-yard-line twice and came away with field goals," Thorson said. "We can't have that, we've got to score. We've got to put points on the board."
Nonetheless, NU had all of its timeouts left, and twice forced OSU into third down situations. But both times, the Buckeyes were able to pull off big plays, including a 35-yard sneak by Barrett that all but put the nail in the Wildcats' coffin.
"It's pretty tough when you don't touch his flag until 35 yards," Fitzgerald said. "We're one play away. That's what I just told the kids in the locker room, it's not their fault, it's our fault as coaches. I'm bitterly disappointed, frankly, quite furious. But we'll get to work and we'll get it fixed."
Regardless of the outcome, this was a game Northwestern can and should be proud of. The 'Cats gave the Buckeyes all they could handle in the 'Shoe. For a team that has bounced back tremendously from a tough start, that's a monumental achievement, even if they're not in the business of looking for silver linings.
"We felt like we should have won but we didn’t make one play here and there," Thorson said. "We want to win though – there are no moral victories and no one cares how close you come to winning.”
Editor's note: this story was updated to include quotes and photos at 11:50 p.m. on Oct. 29.