By: Tim Hackett
It wasn’t supposed to be close.
The Ohio State Buckeyes had everything going for them. Extra motivation following a shocking upset. A surefire Hall of Fame head coach. A veritable Heisman candidate for a quarterback. A rock-solid defense that had only allowed eight touchdowns all year. Not to mention one of the most storied programs in college football history, aided by one of the biggest stadiums in the world.
Northwestern doesn’t have any of that.
It wasn’t supposed to be close.
But it was.
On Saturday in Columbus, the Northwestern Wildcats gave it their all, but it simply just wasn’t enough, as they fell 24-20 to the Buckeyes, the No. 6 team in the nation. Led by 294 total yards from quarterback J.T. Barrett, two rushing touchdowns from running back Mike Weber, and 14 tackles from defensive back Malik Hooker, the Buckeyes survived an inspired, impressive pack of Wildcats, and narrowly avoided their second loss to an unranked team in as many games.
Ohio State averages 42.6 points per game, and it looked like Saturday’s contest was destined to be a shootout early as the Buckeyes put together a clinical first possession. Starting at their own 6-yard line, Barrett needed only nine plays and not even three minutes to march down the field, capped off by a one-yard run by Weber. On Northwestern’s next possession, Clayton Thorson threw an interception, and Ohio State turned it into a 35-yard field goal nine plays later. 10 minutes hadn’t even been played, and the Buckeyes’ lead was already 10 points.
The Wildcats could’ve crumbled. They certainly have before. But this time, they didn’t; instead, they put together a methodical drive of their own, marching 75 yards in 16 plays before Thorson capped it off with a one-yard plunge to make it 10-7. Northwestern made its first of many clutch plays on that drive, as Thorson picked up three third down conversions and one fourth down conversion through the air.
But Ohio State responded well. Northwestern forced the Buckeyes into three third down scenarios, but Ohio State converted all of them, none bigger than a 13-yard completion from Barrett to tight end Marcus Baugh on third-and-12. Mike Weber rushed from the 23 yards into the end zone on the very next play, restoring Ohio State’s 10-point lead with 6:17 left in the first half.
Armed with plenty of time, the Wildcats had a great chance to put some points on the board before halftime while preventing Ohio State from doing the same. They did that perfectly. Anchored by a 35-yard Thorson run, the Wildcats traveled 82 yards before Jack Mitchell nailed a 23-yard field goal to make the halftime deficit a very manageable 17-10.
After Ohio State scored in each of its first three possessions, it was unable to score in its next five. In fact, it was Northwestern that struck first in the second half on their second series. Thorson connected with breakout star wideout Austin Carr twice for gains of over 30 yards before he hit Garrett Dickerson from two yards out to remarkably level the score at 17-all with under four minutes left to play in the third quarter.
The teams traded punts again, but then the Buckeyes showed flashes of what makes them so good. They needed just six plays to go 63 yards, as a 34-yard pass from Barrett to K.J. Hill set up a three-yard score from Curtis Samuel to make the score 24-17 with 6:43 left in the game.
The Wildcats could’ve crumbled. But they didn’t. Instead, they picked up three more massive third-down conversions to establish themselves with a first-and-goal scenario from the three-yard line.
After Thorson was brought down for a loss of two, Northwestern tried a bit of a trick play, where wideout Andrew Scanlan ended up passing to the back of the end zone, just off target of James Prather. On third down, a Northwestern holding call set up third-and-15. Thorson’s pass was incomplete on the play though, and Pat Fitzgerald opted to kick field goal instead of trying for a touchdown, trusting that Mitchell would make the kick and then his defense would give the offense another chance.
The Buckeyes didn’t need another score, leading by four with three and a half minutes left to play. All they needed to do was play it smart and execute. And they did. On a third-and-10, Barrett did his best Thorson impression and picked up 35 yards by himself. On the next play, Weber picked up 11. And that was all she wrote.
An Ohio State team that allows just over 124 rushing yards per game allowed 148 to Northwestern, but only 76 of those yards belonged to Justin Jackson, his lowest total since the embarrassing 9-7 loss to Illinois State in week two. But this is not the same Wildcats team, and “embarrassing” is a not a word that should be used to describe this loss. Led by 158 receiving yards from Austin Carr, a new career high, the Wildcats put more than a little scare into the hearts of the Buckeyes. And while it is going to be very difficult for them to win the Big Ten, their path to bowl eligibility is pretty clear with matchups with Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois still to come.
But first, it’s a home date with the Wisconsin Badgers, which are set to rise in the ranking after knocking off Nebraska Saturday night. The matchup with an opportunistic offense and one of the nation’s best defenses will be far from easy, but Wisconsin is far from unbeatable. Last year, when Northwestern played two great teams in Iowa and Michigan, it lost by an average of 39 points. This year, the Wildcats went on the road and lost to Ohio State – by just four. It isn’t going to be easy, but if Northwestern can play just a little bit better, Wisconsin better watch out.