EVANSTON, Ill. – October 5 was a date circled on calendars throughout the Chicagoland area. The Ohio State game was billed as the biggest Northwestern home game in decades and arguably its history. The purple-clad fans will remember it for years as the one that got away.
The 16th-ranked Wildcats threw everything they could at the Buckeyes. But in the end, No. 4 Ohio State, a nemesis to Northwestern for half a century, was able to overcome three turnovers and an inconsistent offense for a 40-30 victory. It was the 29th win over the Wildcats in 30 tries for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State was challenged for all 60 minutes, facing constant adversity. It rode running back Carlos Hyde for much of the night – he finished with a career-high 168 yards and three touchdowns – but Braxton Miller rose to the occasion late in the fourth quarter with a national championship hanging in the balance. And he did so on a night when he was far from his usual dynamic self.
There was talk all week about Northwestern possibly shrinking in the spotlight. Instead, the team embraced the moment. The Wildcats led 30-27 midway through the fourth quarter when the law firm of Miller and Hyde took Ohio State 81 yards in eight plays. It was a trademark championship drive.
Miller completed four passes for 64 yards and ran once, with Hyde doing the heavy lifting on the other four plays. He scored the game-winning touchdown from seven yards out to give the Buckeyes a 34-30 lead with 5:22 remaining.
Urban Meyer called it the Carlos Hyde game.
“I think I did wear them out,” Hyde said. “I’m built for this. I’m built to carry it that much. Coach said he was going to ride me, and he did. When a coach tells you that, you get excited.”
Said Meyer: “That shows how much I trust the kid.”
One the ensuing series, the Ohio State defense, which had been torched by Northwestern for much of the game, stopped the Wildcats on 4th-and-1 after Kain Colter fumbled the snap and stumbled. It was the biggest play of the season thus far and validated the Silver Bullets on a night filled with struggles.
Cameron Johnston pinned Northwestern inside the 20 with 21 seconds left, and Joey Bosa recovered a fumble in the end zone on the game’s final play to provide the 10-point margin.
Miller finished 15-of-26 for 203 yards with zero touchdowns and an interception. He gained 68 yards rushing, but had a costly fumble inside the Northwestern 10 and another that led to a touchdown. Hyde had 112 yards in the second half, while Philly Brown caught six passes for 127 yards.
The defense clearly missed both the leadership and play of senior safety and captain Christian Bryant. His replacement, Pittsburgh Brown, struggled from the first snap on, and the secondary allowed 343 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Northwestern’s do-everything running back Venric Mark victimized the Ohio State defense to the tune of 103 yards on 21 touches.
The Buckeyes clinched a bowl berth with the win. It'll be their first appearance in the postseason since the Gator Bowl following the 2011 season. They also have a big upperhand in the Leaders Division race, all but wrapping up a trip to Indianapolis. Ohio State would have to lose twice in the final six games and Wisconsin would have to win out.
The Buckeyes had not faced adversity all season, but it came in bunches on Saturday night – and quickly. Ohio State trailed for the first time all year seven minutes into the game and only led 10-3 at the end of the first quarter.
Quick starts have elevated the Buckeyes to victories in each of its first five games. Entering the Northwestern game, they outscored opponents 116-21 during the game’s first 15 minutes. Not only did Ohio State not get off to an efficient start, the Buckeyes didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first half. The 20-13 halftime deficit was Ohio State’s first since last season’s Michigan game.
The Wildcat defense has allowed large chunks of yards all season – they rank 85th in total defense – but they are able to force team to kick field goals. That scenario played out again Saturday when they held the Buckeyes inside the red zone twice.
Ohio State moved the ball with ease on its opening drive, traveling inside the 10 in five plays. But the offense stalled from there and was held to a field goal for an early 3-0 lead. The Buckeyes had an opportunity to build on its lead until quarterback Braxton Miller fumbled at the OSU 23. Northwestern recovered and scored in just five plays, with quarterback Kain Colter lining up in the slot and catching a touchdown pass from co-starter Trevor Siemian. It came at the expense of Brown.
Momentum shifted Ohio State’s way when Bradley Roby broke free as Northwestern attempted a punt from its own end zone. He quickly scooped up the ball to put the Buckeyes back in front, 10-7, late in the first quarter. In the Meyer's 12-year career, his teams have blocked a punt in 20 games, winning all 20.
The Wildcats didn’t flinch, though. A workmanlike 10-play drive ended with Colter outrunning the Ohio State defense to the corner of the end zone from two yards out. The bend-but-don’t-break Northwestern defense arrived again, denying a Buckeye touchdown from first-and-goal at the 6. The Wildcats stuffed two runs before Miller missed Chris Fields in the end zone. Fields didn’t have a Northwestern defender within five yards of him, but the throw sailed over his head by several feet. A field goal from Basil cut Northwestern’s lead to one.
Fields goals on consecutive possessions pushed the Wildcat lead to 20-13, where it remained for the duration of the half. But not without Ohio State showing glimpses of panic. Facing 4th-and-3 from its own 32, Meyer rolled the dice and rolled Cameron Johnston to the left on a fake punt. However, Northwestern converged quickly and then didn’t need to gain a first for a field goal.
“The head coach and the offense really put the defense in some bad positions,” Meyer said. “We went for a fake punt. I felt like we needed to swing the momentum at the end of the first half. I thought we were having trouble stopping them. That was an error by me.”
The first half came to a close after an Ohio State drive ended with an interception after Miller’s arm was hit on the follow-through. The Wildcats scored on the first possession of the second half to stretch its lead to double digits. Miller turned the ball over again on the next series when it looked like he might score a touchdown. The fumble at the 7 had all the makings of a backbreaker, but a three-and-out gave the defense a much-needed boost, then the offense marched down the field for a touchdown to trim the lead to a more manageable three points.
Following Miller's second fumble, Meyer had Kenny Guiton warm up on the sideline before opting to stick with his starter.
“My heart bleeds, but I almost put Kenny in there,” Meyer said. “We were riding. I didn't think that was the appropriate thing to do at that point.”
The Buckeyes reclaimed the lead for the first time since early in the second quarter came after Doran Grant jumped on a pass by Siemian. Grant’s interception gave Ohio State the ball inside the red zone, where Hyde scored his second of three touchdowns.
A 67-yard pass play on the second snap of Northwestern’s next possession put it in prime position to swing the lead back in the Wildcats favor. On 3rd-and-goal, Siemian repaid the favor to Grant and connected on a 12-yard pass play with the receiver he was covering.
That set up the dramatic conclusion.