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Why beating Ohio State would cement Pat Fitzgerald as one of the greatest coaches of all-time

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The team that stands in the Wildcats’ way is the only Big Ten foe that Fitz has yet to conquer.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Fitzgerald has done it all at Northwestern. He was twice named an All-American and led the ‘Cats to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 47 years as a player. He’s more than doubled the number of wins accrued at Northwestern by any other head football coach, per CFB Reference.

Come Saturday, his team will be playing in its second conference championship game in three years, an accomplishment most would have thought to be impossible had you told them back in the dog days of NU football’s history. Fitzgerald is an incredible coach who has proven just how special he is time and time again.

As a coach, he even has a record of .500 or better against eight Big Ten programs and has beaten every single team in the conference at least once, per Winsipedia.

Except for Ohio State.

In seven tries over 15 seasons at the helm, Fitz is 0-7 against the Buckeyes. It’s not like this is uncommon at Northwestern. NU has won just one of its last 33 games against Ohio State, the lone victory the 2004 overtime upset over No. 6 OSU in Evanston under Randy Walker. But even that win didn’t truly equate to the ‘Cats climbing the scarlet and gray mountain top.

“The ‘04 team that Northwestern team beat was the last time Ohio State had a rebuilding year as a program,” said Doug Lesmerises — columnist for Cleveland.com, Ohio State beat reporter since 2005 and (most importantly) Medill grad (‘95). “It was the perfect time, and Northwestern took advantage of the opportunity. Since then, there hasn’t been one because the Urban [and Day] teams are monsters compared to the Tressel teams. Urban injected the best program in the Big Ten with recruiting elixir. The difference between then and now in Ohio State is three to four levels removed.”

It’s not that the Buckeyes can’t be beat. Five Big Ten teams from four different programs have found a way to prevail since Columbus was Urbanized.

  • 2013: Michigan State 34-24 (Big Ten Championship)
  • 2015: Michigan State 17-14
  • 2016: Penn State 24-21
  • 2017: Iowa 55-24
  • 2018: Purdue 49-20

Notice the trend? OSU failed to score more than 24 points in any of its losses. Likewise, in its thrilling defeat against Clemson in last year’s playoff, the Tigers held them to 23 points. Trying to beat the Buckeyes in a shootout is digging your own grave. If Northwestern is going to pull this off on Saturday, Fitz and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will need to find a way to slow down the turbo-charged Ohio State offensive attack, spearheaded by dynamic quarterback Justin Fields.

In the seven defeats Fitz’s teams have suffered at the hands of the Buckeyes, OSU exceeded Northwestern’s average points per game allowed, per CFB Reference.

  • 2006: 54-10 Ohio State (26.2 PPG allowed)
  • 2007: 58-7 Ohio State (31.0)
  • 2008: 45-10 Ohio State (20.2)
  • 2013: 40-30 Ohio State (27.1)
  • 2016: 24-20 Ohio State (22.2)
  • 2018: 45-24 Ohio State (Big Ten Championship) (23.2)
  • 2019: 52-3 Ohio State (23.6)

(The 40-30 loss of 2013 can be read more accurately as a 34-30 Wildcat defeat, as the Buckeyes scored on the final play of the game when Northwestern’s wild lateral attempts resulted in a touchdown for the opposing defense, aka one of the worst bad beats of all-time.).

In Fitzgerald’s two closest losses to the Buckeyes, the ‘Cats defense limited the OSU offense to fewer than 40 points. Holding an opponent under 40 feels like something you should expect from a nationally elite defense like Northwestern’s, but it just doesn’t happen often against a team like Ohio State. Just look at the jarring gap between OSU and Northwestern’s points scored per game over the last eight years, during which the Buckeyes have averaged less than 40 points only three times.

As an aside, Fitz and Hankwitz deserve statues on the shores of Lake Michigan for taking the 2015 ‘Cats, scorers of 19.5 points per game, to a 10-3 record.

This season, Ohio State has put up 46.6 points per game, while Northwestern has allowed only 14.6 on average. Average those out and you get a clean 30.6-point medium, and whether or not the Buckeyes crack that barrier will likely determine the fate of the Wildcats, because Peyton Ramsey and co. should be able to put up some points. Ohio State’s defense was not only fried by Indiana in the second half of their November bout but gave up a combined 52 points to the blasé offenses of Penn State and Rutgers.

“This Ohio State team is not as good as last year’s team. They do not have as many top, top end dudes, but Justin Fields is the answer to everything,” Lesmerises said. “There’s a decent number of ‘buts’ to this Ohio State team, but Justin answers all of them. He’s the most talented quarterback in Ohio State history.”

Northwestern will have to win following a script Fitz era teams have leaned on for years — forcing turnovers, controlling the clock and eking out upset wins with both teams scoring in the twenties. It’s worked time and time again, just not against the Buckeyes, the flagship football program of the Big Ten.

That’s why finally beating Ohio State and taking that step would mean so much to Northwestern, which has proved over the last 15 years it can do things no one believed Evanston’s Big Ten institution was capable of. The one thing he hasn’t yet proved the haters wrong about is competing with the nationally elite, not just the conference contenders. People perceive the Wildcats as good-not-great underdogs whose school profile will always hold them back from the level of teams like Ohio State.

“I think what Galloway said about ‘The Fighting Rece Davises is how Ohio State fans view Northwestern as well,” Lesmerises said. “They all respect Fitz and enjoy the fact that Northwestern is an overachieving solid football team. But they also believe that Northwestern has zero chance to beat them.”

That’s the legacy Fitzgerald’s program holds right now. They’ve won respect, but it’s in the form of a thumbs up from those with seats at the table and not an invitation to sit down themselves. Finding a way to take down Fields, Day and all those future NFL millionaires that litter the OSU roster would cement Northwestern as a great program and Fitzgerald as one of the best coaches college football has ever seen.

“In 2006, [Northwestern] locked in a guy who is probably one of the 10 best coaches in college football right now,” Lesmerises said. “Everybody thinks Northwestern can get right up there, but they can’t run with the top five. If you beat Ohio State, then why couldn’t Northwestern beat Alabama?”

When asked about what a victory would mean during his Sunday press conference, Fitzgerald gave typical coach speak, focusing more on how important it is for any Big Ten program to win the conference, rather than the significance that comes from the opponent being Ohio State. He did, however, say a win would make for “A heck of a ride home on I-65.”

But he did acknowledge that when you come at the king, you best not miss.

“When you have opportunities [against Ohio State], you have to take advantage of them, because they will be few and far between,” he said.

Saturday is that opportunity. West division teams like Iowa and Purdue have tripped up Ohio State in the regular season, but neither victory changed the perception of their programs. It’s easier for the favorite to get caught slacking on a mid-October trip to Iowa City or West Lafayette than it is on a national showcase in Indianapolis with a College Football Playoff spot on the line. Wisconsin, the class of the West, has fallen to the Buckeyes in this game three times in three different ways.

There’s no excuse for Ohio State if the ‘Cats upend them. The Buckeyes’ whole season has been about getting back to the Playoff to make amends for what felt like a blown opportunity a year ago, a National Semifinal many, including Fitz and Lesmerises, think they should’ve won.

It’s good for Northwestern fans to stop from time to time and take a look back at how far the program has come. Once the laughingstock of the entire football multiverse, everything changed when a linebacker who liked to cut the sleeves off his shirt to “show off the pipe cleaners” led an underdog team to 10 wins and a Big Ten title. Since then, they’ve been good, even great in spurts. But none of those three conference championship seasons in ‘95, ‘96 and ‘00 included wins over Ohio State.

“If Northwestern beats Ohio State [this Saturday], it’s the greatest win in Northwestern history,” Lesmerises said. “You would be beating the best program in the conference while it’s at its best.”

It feels impossible for NU to accomplish what it’s being asked to do on Saturday, but then again, all Fitz has done over 25 years with Northwestern is prove people wrong at every turn.

One more win this Saturday and truly anything will be possible for Pat Fitzgerald.