The way Northwestern players were talking about No. 6 Ohio State heading into a primetime Ryan Field clash, you would have thought the Wildcats were 4-0, not 1-3 and coming off a blowout loss to Minnesota.
Defensive lineman Luis Castillo called the Buckeye offense “mediocre.” Wildcat wide receiver Mark Philmore said the Buckeyes were “kids just like you out there,” according to a 2004 AP story.
These were the same Buckeyes who had beaten Northwestern 24 times in a row. The same Buckeyes featuring future NFL talent like Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Hawk.
Northwestern had dropped heartbreakers to TCU and Arizona State before the Minnesota debacle, but the team knew it was better than 1-3. Sounds a bit familiar, huh?
“That particular year, we had, if I’m not mistaken, we had one of the hardest schedules in the country and I always felt that we hadn’t played our best ball yet,” Philmore told Inside NU this week.
Tim McGarigle, a linebacker on the 2004 team and the current NU linebackers coach, said it was a “do-or-die” week for the Wildcats. They entered Ohio State gameweek focused on turning their season around.
“I could remember that week of practice vividly and we had by far, probably in my time here, the best week of practice we ever had ...” McGarigle said. “We were confident going into that game because of the week of practice we had and then we wound up going out there and playing the best we’ve played all year.”
The team rallied around the verbal spars thrown by Castillo and Philmore because, well, they believed it. And they weren’t intimidated by Ohio State just because of the name.
“I felt as though we came out and didn’t get scared or fall into the helmet factor,” Philmore said.
The team also had a strong Ohio faction, from head coach Randy Walker to safety Jeff Backes to Philmore, who grew up in Columbus amid a sea of red. An Ohio State coach asked the 5-foot-10 high schooler if he played cornerback after Philmore impressed at a recruiting camp. When Philmore said no, the recruiter “pretty much said ‘Good luck,’” according to the future NU wideout.
“I mean it definitely had an extra motivation,” Philmore said. “I wanted to prove a point, I guess in the sense that you didn’t have to be a 6-foot, 6-foot-1 guy to be able to play receiver in the Big Ten.”
Offensive line coach James Patton wasn’t usually charged with the pregame speech, but on that October night, the native Ohioan delivered an impassioned message.
As he spoke, the familiar keyboard riff from the beginning of Eminem and Nate Dogg’s “Till I Collapse” began to play in the locker room. Patton’s voice rose as the piano came in, then the guitar, then the bass.
“I don’t care how big they are, they’re gonna fall,” Philmore remembered Patton saying.
The song’s introduction reached its climax along with Patton’s speech. When the beat dropped, the Wildcats were ready to play.
“Everybody’s like getting chills and we start jumping up and down and literally we left the locker room and obviously came back with ‘W’,” Philmore said. “It was just almost like timing was just perfect.”
Northwestern’s high-powered offense, led by Brett Basanez and Noah Herron, jumped on the Buckeye defense early, scoring on a field goal and a touchdown to take a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Night games at Ryan Field were a rarity nearly a decade and a half ago, and the home crowd was buzzing in anticipation of something special.
“It was the best atmosphere I’ve been around in my playing and coaching career,” McGarigle said.
Of course, the Buckeyes would fight back to close the margin to three at halftime. Then, after the Wildcats opened up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, Ohio State rallied to tie the game on a Santonio Holmes touchdown catch with under two minutes to go.
The Buckeyes had the momentum, but that Northwestern team prided itself on finishing games, according to McGarigle. Much like the current iteration of the Wildcats, Randy Walker’s team felt confident that it could beat any opponent provided the game was close in crunch time.
“Once we went [to] overtime, I think we knew we were going to get it,” McGarigle said.
It took a bit of luck. Ohio State got the ball first and settled for a 40-yard field goal attempt from Mike Nugent, who was one of the best kickers in the country at the time. But Nugent pushed the ball wide right and Northwestern had a chance to seal the upset. On second down, Basanez scrambled for 21 yards to bring NU within spitting distance of the goal line. Herron cashed in from a yard out two plays later, and pandemonium ensued. Northwestern 33, No. 6 Ohio State 27.
The entire team dogpiled in the north end zone. Students dashed across the field to join the party.
Philmore, who had a career game with 134 receiving yards and a touchdown, found an ESPN camera and delivered a special message to his friends and family back home.
“How you like that, Columbus?”
“I went to high school there, all my family, everybody, all Buckeye fans,” Philmore said. “I definitely made sure to let them know.”
Philmore, now the wide receivers coach at Dayton, said he will be watching the game from Ohio after hosting some recruits on a official visit. McGarigle, who will be on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium, said the lesson to be learned from the 2004 game is that the week of practice before Saturday’s game is crucial.
And, like that night in Evanston 14 years ago, get the Buckeyes to the fourth quarter.
“Don’t try to think it’s going to be an upset or this or that,” McGarigle said. “Prepare for victory, and when we get teams in the fourth quarter, we like our chances.”