This weekend’s visit by Ohio State may remind some of the last OSU night game in Evanston, a 33-27 Wildcat win in 2004. That victory was the first win over OSU in Evanston in 33 years, and was among the highlights of Randy Walker’s tenure. With the victory, he became one of very few coaches in history to defeat every Big Ten team during his career (he beat NU while at Miami in 1995). The nationally televised game has become a staple on Big Ten Network, where it is usually run during “Northwestern Day” each summer.
Like this year’s game, OSU came into the game undefeated and ranked in the top 10. However, the comparisons end there. In 2004, NU entered the game with a 1-3 record, as opposed to this year’s 4-0 team. They opened the year with a wild 48-45 overtime loss at TCU, a game in which the Cats missed five of six field goals. NU split the next two home games, a 30-21 loss to Arizona State and a 20-17 win against Kansas. A disastrous trip to Minnesota followed, as NU was hammered 43-17 at the Metrodome.
Ohio State entered the game 3-0 after home wins against Cincinnati and Marshall, plus a road win at North Carolina State. They came into Evanston coming off a bye week and ranked #7 in the country. However, they still had questions at quarterback, where highly-recruited Justin Zwick had failed to live up to his recruiting hype.
Northwestern never trailed in the game, taking a 3-0 lead early in the first quarter. The Wildcats could score, but could never quite pull away from OSU. The Buckeyes tied the game with 1:54 to go in the fourth quarter on a 21 yard pass from Zwick to future Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. OSU had the ball first in OT, but the NU defense was able to force a field goal attempt. Mike Nugent, who went on to win the Lou Groza Award that season, missed a field goal at the north end of Ryan Field. When NU got possession, they drove the ball down to the one yard line. However, given the season-long struggles of their kicking game, coach Randy Walker decided to go for a game-winning touchdown rather than try a chip shot field goal. The result was a one-yard touchdown game winning TD run by Noah Herron, who finished the night with 113 yards on 33 carries.
Columbus native Mark Philmore was a key to the game, with 11 catches for 134 yards and his first career touchdown. It was an especially sweet game for fellow Columbus native Jeff Backes, who was selected as “Mr. Football” in Ohio in 2000. Backes came to NU as a running back, but failed to find success. He eventually became a defensive back, and he made a key second half interception of Zwick to help sustain NU’s lead.
The game helped to quell ongoing speculation over Randy Walker’s job status. The team’s 1-3 start had some fans calling for a change. The Cats went on to a 6-6 season, which was not enough to be bowl eligible. Since it was still an “11 game season," their 12th game at Hawaii meant that seven wins were necessary for a bowl game. NU lost that final game on the Island, and stayed home despite a 5-3 Big Ten record. OSU went on to an 8-4 record, and finished behind NU in the standings. During the season Zwick lost his starting job to the much less heralded Troy Smith, who would go on to win a Heisman Trophy in 2006.