From the moment it was announced that Ohio State would be the homecoming opponent, Northwestern knew this was going to be a big game.
Mike and Mike, ESPN College GameDay and Northwestern alumi from every corner of the country rolled into town, and all eyes turned to Evanston, Ill., to see the No. 16 Wildcats (4-1, 0-1 Big Ten) take on the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0, 2-0).
As Northwestern fans have come to expect, the Cardiac ‘Cats played this game exactly the way they should have until the fourth quarter.
Northwestern led the Buckeyes lead 23-20 with 12:26 left to play in the game when junior quarterback Trevor Siemian (13 for 18, 245 yards, two touchdowns) threw a pass he never should have thrown toward wide receiver Rashad Lawrence. Instead of reaching Lawrence’s hands, it was intercepted by Ohio State’s Doran Grant at the Wildcats’ 23-yard line.
That pass resulted in a two-yard rushing touchdown by senior running back Carlos Hyde – who rushed for 168 yards and three touchdowns – to put Ohio State up by four. That was the pass that came back to bite Northwestern, the one that started the quarter-long decline to the eventual 40-30 loss.
When the Northwestern offense took the field again, Siemian found Lawrence for a 67-yard pass to move Northwestern down to Ohio State’s seven-yard line, setting up a 12-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Dickerson to put the ‘Cats back in the lead 30-27.
But it still wasn’t enough to redeem Siemian's previous mistake. The Wildcats wouldn’t score for the rest of the game. And once again, Northwestern was this close to knocking off a ranked opponent in a big game. After the game, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said that while he's disappointed in the result, he was pleased with how hard his team fought and confident in its abiility to rebound.
“It is about coming back and responding to things when they get tough,” Fitzgerald said. “It is about sticking together and believing in yourself and each other. Obviously a disappointed locker room, but [we have] great leadership and we'll bounce back and have a challenge a week from now.”
Yet, the return Venric Mark was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day for Northwestern fans. The All-American senior running back returned to action after missing the team's first four games with a lower body injury. Mark ended up leading all Wildcat rushers with 61 yards on 17 carries.
Before the ping-ponging of the second half, big, flashy plays defined the first, proving that the hype all this week was warranted.
“Our students are having a blast,” Fitzgerald said about the campus atmosphere this week. “They have a darn good football team to root for. We are going to need them; we have a bunch of big games coming up. The reason why [ESPN] College GameDay was here is because of them.”
Northwestern’s first touchdown came as a result of an interesting twist on the team’s duel-quarterback system. Siemian hit up quarteback Kain Colter – who was being used as a slot receiver – with a nine-yard touchdown pass seven minutes into the first half, putting Northwestern up 7-3.
Colter also rushed for a touchdown in the first half but not much else. The Ohio State defense held the usually rush-happy quarterback to just 16 yards rushing.
Although Northwestern won the turnover battle by forcing two Braxton Miller fumbles and an interception, the ‘Cats still made some crucial early-game errors that put Ohio State points on the scoreboard.
After sacking Miller and forcing a punt, Northwestern made its first big mistake of the game. Ohio State capitalized on poor punt protection and blocked Brandon Williams’ punt in the end zone, allowing OSU’s Dontre Wilson to recover the ball for a touchdown.
That defensive score would carry Ohio State to the third quarter, when they scored their first offensive touchdown off a four-yard Hyde rush, a springboard for the Buckeyes’ 20 fourth-quarter points.
Lawrence said, however, that as much as this game was hyped up, now the team must look forward to next week.
“We know that this is a marathon,” he said. “We still have to go out there next week. We can’t let Ohio State beat us twice.”