It was a surprisingly sunny and mild mid-November in 2001 when the Bowling Green Falcons visited Ryan Field. The game was a makeup due to the cancellation of a game against Navy at home the weekend following the 9/11 attacks. NU came into the game at 4-6, having lost 5 in a row after coming into the season ranked and starting off 4-1 with their only loss on the road to Ohio State. But, the psychological effects of the preseason death of defensive back Rashidi Wheeler coupled with 9/11 and an extremely porous defense led to a precipitous downfall of the team that shared the Big Ten title one season earlier and came into 2001 as preseason conference favorites.
After allowing Joe Paterno's PSU team to come from behind and win their first game of the season, NU lost by 5 in a tough road game to a decent Purdue team, then the bottom fell out at Indiana where Antwaan Randle-El went wild as NU lost by 35 on the road. But the biggest loss may have been Damien Anderson, who went out for the season with a shoulder injury, taking away one of the 'Cats' biggest offensive weapons that was supposed to lead NU to all kinds of records in the second year of the Randy Walker spread offense. Then NU came home and was humiliated by Iowa as the wheels came off the defense and the offense became a one-weapon show with QB Zak Kustok carrying the load.
But, despite all that, the 'Cats still had a glimmer of hope to make a bowl game (by winning their final two games), and BGSU seemed like a winnable game (NU was favored by 5.5). The Falcons came in at 6-3 under new head coach Urban Meyer, who had made his way through the coaching ranks as an assistant and made some noise in his first game at the helm as they upset Missouri on the road 20-13 (after going 2-9 the previous season and firing their previous coach). Given NU's defensive woes and Meyer's offensive schemes (including some unusual formations on offense that were essentially swinging gate plays: the snapper and the QB alone with the rest of the line and a back offset from them flanked by some wideouts) coupled with dual threat QB Josh Harris, the game was looking to be a shootout, and the teams didn't disappoint.
NU's offense got off to a fast start with TDs on their first two possessions, with Kustok going wild on his way to a then-school-record 532 yards of total offense (26-of-39 passing for 421 plus 29 carries for 111 on the ground). But BGSU would respond to stay in the game as they eventually racked up over 600 yards on the day, with Harris accounting for 493 of those.
With under 4 minutes left in regulation, NU was leading by 14, but Bowling Green would not yield as Harris ran it in to get within one score. On the ensuing onside kick, Kustok would actually recover the kick (see, he did have to do everything), but RB Torri Stuckey fumbled at the Bowling Green 22 with just over 90 seconds remaining in the game. BGSU would then drive all the way for the potential tying score with 36 seconds left in regulation.
But, instead of playing for overtime, Meyer went for the win by running a reverse pass, but NU had their kick block team on and wasn't prepared for a two point try, allowing the Falcon ballcarrier to waltz into the endzone. With that, Bowling Green would beat a Big Ten team for the first time since 1972, and Northwestern's dim bowl hopes would be completely extinguished.
Meyer would go on to win 8 games that season and 9 games the following season before being lured to Utah, where he won double-digit games in two seasons, including becoming the first "BCS buster" with an undefeated 2004 season and Fiesta Bowl win. He, of course, then went on to Florida where he won 2 national titles, and is now head coach at Ohio State following a year out of coaching.
NU was in the midst of their worst run since the mid-1990's resurgence, as NU would go 3-15 from that aforementioned PSU game through the end of the 2002 regular season. The end of 2001 saw the departure of OC Kevin Wilson to take the same position at Oklahoma (he's now head coach at Indiana), as well as bringing in a new DC (Greg Colby) to take over for Jerry Brown (who has subsequently coached DBs for NU).
And, notably, it was current NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald's first season on the Wildcat coaching staff, as an LB coach, and on October 5th, the entire nation will get to watch Fitz and Meyer go head-to-head again on Ryan Field in one of the biggest home games in Wildcat history.