Northwestern is a team that Ohio State fans normally don't take seriously. In this age of parity brought on by scholarship limits and exotic offenses, almost anything can happen on the football field. The safest bet in the NFL is usually Cleveland losing at Pittsburgh; in college football it is Northwestern losing to Ohio State, no matter where they play.
It wasn't always that way. From 1940-1948, OSU won four times against NU and lost four times. But they lost only four more times from 1949-1971, and have lost to the Wildcats only once since then. As they prepared to travel to Evanston to face them in 1994, the Buckeyes were working on an 18-game winning streak against Northwestern.
The 1994 OSU football season was a strange one. Great things were expected after the 10-1-1 season in 1993, and the team welcomed back starting quarterback Bob Hoying and star receiver Joey Galloway to help fuel an offense that had been tremendously efficient the previous season. But Galloway was suspended for two games after it was revealed that he had accepted a couple hundred bucks from a financial advisor.
The loss of their best offensive threat crippled the team as they headed to Washington for their first regular season game (they had defeated Fresno State in the Pigskin Classic to start the season). The defanged offense struggled to move the ball and fell behind the Huskies 22-0 at halftime. They rallied in the second half but ultimately lost 25-16.
This was a season where OSU would lose to Illinois at home for the fourth straight time (can you imagine that now?). It was also a season where the program would be humiliated on national television by eventual national champion Penn State, 63-14. But just when it appeared that the wheels were falling off, the team rallied to register John Cooper's first win over Michigan as Ohio State head coach, 22-6. It would be one of only two he would earn in 13 years at the helm.
Volatility is often a trait of teams that are in transition, and despite the return of Galloway and the maturation of Hoying, this Ohio State team was in transition, especially in the trenches. Right tackle Korey Stringer was the only returning starter on the offensive line, and the defensive line had to cope with the loss of veteran defensive end Jason Simmons and massive defensive tackle Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson (who had been the first overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft).
A replacement was also needed at running back, where 1993 starter Raymont Harris had departed for the NFL. Fortunately, there was a player ready to step up, although his past performances for the team were mixed. Eddie George had made a splash as a freshman in 1992 when he scored three touchdowns in a 35-12 upset win at Syracuse. But then he cost the team dearly when he fumbled twice near the goal line against Illinois in an 18-16 loss. As a sophomore he was buried at third string and had only 42 carries on the season.
However, George emerged as the starter in the fall of 1994 and performances like the one against Northwestern gave OSU fans a taste of what the bruising runner was capable of. George carried 39 times for 206 yards and a touchdown, his fourth straight game over 100 yards. The Buckeyes would need every ounce of that effort against the Wildcats, because this was a different kind of Northwestern team. Like George, they were on the verge of a breakout.
Gary Barnett had been a successful offensive coordinator at Colorado. During his time there, the Buffaloes won their only national championship. He left in 1992 to become the head coach at Northwestern, promising the fans at the time of his hiring that he would lead the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl. It was bold talk, but Barnett would deliver in the 1995, earning a berth in the 1996 Rose Bowl.
In 1994, the team had not yet established a winning attitude, but Barnett had developed their toughness by emphasizing a power running game and a strong defense against the run. Ohio State ran into that toughness when they arrived at Evanston, and like they had done previously in Seattle they got off to a rough start. NU out-gained the Buckeyes 175-66 in the first half and led at halftime 9-0 on the strength of three field goals by Sam Valenzisi.
Ohio State came out firing on all cylinders in the second half, and they quickly turned the game around. Hoying hit Galloway with a 13-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter to cut the deficit to 9-7. They stopped Northwestern on their next possession, then drove all the way to the NU four-yard line before being stopped and settling for a 21-yard Josh Jackson field goal. The score gave OSU their first lead of the game, 10-9, but they were not finished in that quarter.
Getting the ball back one more time, Ohio State drove down to the Northwestern 11-yard line. On the last play of the quarter, Hoying was hit and fumbled, but Northwestern was called for holding and it kept the drive and the quarter alive. George scored from the six-yard line on the next play, and OSU now had a 17-9 lead going into the fourth. It looked like the team would cruise from there, but Northwestern had one more comeback in them.
The Wildcat defense, led by sophomore linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, was beginning to wear down. But midway through the fourth quarter, George fumbled the ball and Northwestern recovered on their 45, giving the home team new life. From there they drove 55 yards for a touchdown, and they were now just a two-point conversion away from tying the game with five minutes left.
Barnett called for a running play, but tailback Dennis Lundy was stopped by OSU defensive end Matt Finkes before he could get to the end zone. The Buckeyes ran out the clock from there, with George redeeming himself for the fumble by gaining important first downs. The 17-15 victory was not as easy as expected, but in the end the Buckeyes were happy to escape Evanston with a win.
Of course, George would go on to have a spectacular senior season, rushing for over 1900 yards and picking up the Heisman Trophy in the process. Fitzgerald would have a sterling career for the Wildcats, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors in both 1995 and 1996, and also winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award both of those seasons.
In 2006, Fitzgerald was named head coach of Northwestern, taking over after the death of the previous head coach Randy Walker. After a rough start, Fitzgerald has led the team to a 54-49 record and five straight bowl appearances. After the 2012 season, Fitzgerald led Northwestern to their first bowl victory since 1949, defeating Mississippi State of the SEC 34-20.