Northwestern played well Saturday night. The visiting team just happened to deserve that No. 4 in front of its name.
The Wildcats -- the No. 16 team in the country in their own right -- racked up 437 yards of total offense. They forced Braxton Miller, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country, to turn the ball over three times. They did everything they could to win Saturday night except win, falling to the visiting Buckeyes, 40-30, at Ryan Field.
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Make no mistake, this was a quality performance on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately for Northwestern, though, it wasn't a complete one. After last season's blown leads in the fourth quarter of several games spawned a slogan, "5:03," to indicate how close the Cats were to going undefeated, that same Achilles heel was exposed Saturday.
Jeff Budzien kicked a field goal that put Northwestern ahead, 23-13, with 10 minutes and 40 seconds left in the third quarter. But from there on, Ohio State outscored the Wildcats 27-7.
That was mainly thanks to the work of Buckeyes running back Carlos Hyde. Hyde finished with 168 yards on 26 carries, and the Northwestern defense couldn't stop him. Though they managed to limit Miller, Hyde made big play after big play and scored all three of the Buckeyes' offensive touchdowns.
"Hyde is a very dynamic athlete, as we are all very well aware of on defense," said linebacker Damien Proby. "We have guys that stepped up to the plate. In terms of slowing Carlos down, he's a very explosive running back with a very explosive and experienced line in front of him full of seniors. We did our best today. We're happy with our performance. We need to improve on it, but we're not going to be down on ourselves and beat ourselves over the head with this one."
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Back-to-back Hyde scores in a row -- including one goal-line stop turned into a touchdown after a video review -- put the Buckeyes on top, three-and-a-half minutes into the fourth quarter. Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian answered with a 12-yard touchdown throw on 3rd-and-goal, but Ohio State went right back down to score, a drive capped by Hyde's third TD rush, one that put the Buckeyes in front for good.
"We just needed to make a couple more plays down the stretch on (Miller) and on Hyde, and it would've been a different outcome," defensive lineman Tyler Scott said. "They're a good team, and they're a good offense. They came to play."
Northwestern's offense looked strong early, thanks to a pair of touchdowns from quarterback Kain Colter. Colter caught the first one on a pass from Siemian, and Colter rushed in for the second. But after watching the Northwestern defense force the Ohio State offense to settle for a pair of field goals in first-half red-zone trips, the Wildcat offense suffered a similar fate. Three straight trips to the red zone went for field goals rather than touchdowns.
The 'Cats entered Saturday night's tilt as the nation's leader in points off turnovers, but despite the three giveaways by Miller, Northwestern turned them into just seven points. And, to compound that problem, a Northwestern giveaway -- Siemian threw an interception in the fourth quarter -- led to Ohio State's first go-ahead score.
The score, as Pat Fitzgerald repeated several times after the game, was a bit misleading. Northwestern tried a ridiculous series of laterals on the game's final play as time expired, and the ball ended up in the Wildcats' end zone, covered by an Ohio State defender. So observers should effectively shave six points of that final score.
But Northwestern's fate was determined before that play. That moment came on a 4th-and-1 rushing attempt from Colter that saw him fumble, recover and then fail to gain the necessary one yard to keep a drive alive with the Cats down 34-30. Fitzgerald challenged the play, but it sounded from his post game comments that he already knew the result.
Still, Fitzgerald was happy with how his team performed.
"We threw the ball for 343 yards, 437 yards of total offense against a team that's ranked in the Top 5. That's a pretty good night," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to score touchdowns in the red zone. So I could nitpick every play, I can nitpick everything, (but) they're a really good football team…That's a pretty darn good football team we just played there and put up almost 500 yards of total offense. I'll take that every week out of our offense."
The loss won't go down as a bad one for Northwestern -- though head coach and players alike were correct in saying that it was a game that could have easily had a different result. Still, the Cats played well. This just happened to be Ohio State, a team on an 18-game winning streak, a team ranked in the top 5 in the nation, a team that hasn't lost under its current head coach.
And now it's a team that's beat Northwestern 29 times in the last 30 meetings.