On the first weekend of October 2013, Northwestern was a football school.
Although Evanston was obliterated with thunderstorms and rain throughout Saturday, the NU (and OSU) faithful still found its way to the game for a 7:00 CST kickoff. Ryan Field’s capacity lists 47,130, but it was sold out and then some.
In Pat Fitzgerald’s pre-game interview with ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox, she called it “the biggest game since you (Fitz) played here.” Fitzgerald laughed and shrugged at the comment, but make no mistake about it: this was one of, if not the, biggest games since the coach’s playing days.
Once the game began, the Wildcats fed off of Ryan Field’s energy. The galvanizing atmosphere catapulted the ‘Cats to a 20-13 halftime lead.
In the second half, Ohio State’s rushing attack started to wear down the Wildcats defense. Carlos Hyde scampered into Ryan Field’s south end zone for his third touchdown of the half to give the Buckeyes a 34-30 lead, and the Wildcats faced one of the biggest possessions in program history with five minutes remaining.
Venric Mark returned the ensuing kickoff to Northwestern’s 41-yard line. Five plays and two minutes later, the Wildcats faced a fourth-and-1 on Ohio State’s 34-yard line with just under 2:45 left.
On the previous play, a third-and-4 at the Ohio State 37-yard line, Kain Colter handed the ball off to Mark out of the shotgun, who landed a yard short of the first down marker. Yet the referees brought out the chains to measure.
After the measurement, Northwestern’s offense walked up to the line of scrimmage. In an effort to rile up the crowd before the play, Mark repeatedly raised his arms signaling for the Wildcat fans to get loud, an interesting approach given one would think NU probably wanted the crowd quiet in order to hear pre-snap directions before a pivotal fourth down.
Once Mark lined up just behind Colter out of the shotgun, the crowd stayed raucous. Colter clapped once, likely in an effort to draw Ohio State’s defense offsides, before taking a few steps forward and out of the pistol formation. He quickly lined up under center before fumbling center Brandon Vitable’s snap. Colter retrieved it from the grass and lunged a few steps forward to the right before disappearing into a dogpile of Ohio State defenders and Northwestern offensive lineman. No one in the stadium knew where Colter and the football were in relation to the three feet that separated the line of scrimmage from the line to gain.
Once the play unraveled, the referees estimated the spot where Colter fell, and it was inches short of the necessary yardage.
Fitzgerald proceeded to challenge the spot on the field. On replay, while it looked like Colter’s body may have actually contorted its way towards the first down marker, the spot on the field was never going to be overturned with such limited and disputable evidence.
Northwestern fans will tell you he got the first down.
Ohio State fans will tell you he was short.
The reality is that neither side will ever know the answer.
Regardless, it’s frustrating for NU fans knowing that Ohio State simply benefitted from the initial call on the field. There is virtually no way the officials had any semblance of an idea in regards to where the ball was in relation to the first down marker. It was a subjective call, another subjective call Northwestern fans are accustomed to being on the wrong side of by being...Northwestern fans.
Similar to Zach Collins’ block on Dererk Pardon, we do not know how either game would have concluded if the calls went in the Wildcats’ favor. In this game, NU had a stadium full of NU fans behind them, and very possibly could have scored a game-winning touchdown to beat the Buckeyes. They’d already put up 30 points to that point. Unfortunately, since NU and OSU’s matchup was nearly seven years ago, there aren’t as many advanced statistics like win probability with which to work.
We can, though, look at Bill Connelly’s “Equivalent Points Value” (EqPt). This metric analyzes how many points an offense can expect to score from a given yard line. According to the graph below, the expected value of points at the 67-yard line — the opponent’s 33-yard line, where NU would have been if Colter converted on fourth down — is just above three points.
To put this in better context, once a team crosses the end zone according to EqPT, the offense is expected to score 6.96 points on the possession because converting the extra point is all but certain.
Ultimately, the Wildcats scoring a touchdown and stopping the Buckeyes thereafter could have drastically changed where the program is today.
We all know how the story went after losing this game. After starting the season 4-0, the Wildcats lost their next seven before winning the #HAT in Champaign.
But what if the Wildcats were on the right side of the call?
The next seven games would have gone differently. Northwestern fell 35-6 in the following game at Wisconsin — which finished the season a very Badgery 9-4 — but Colter was knocked out of the game early on with an injury.
Instead of starting 5-0 with a win over a top-five team, the late loss demoralized the ‘Cats for the rest of the season. The emotional setback followed by Colter’s injury put a damper on a year that began so promising.
Sure, it’s fun to be a dreamer and say NU hypothetically could have finished the season at 12-0, 11-1, or 10-2 with a win over OSU. And it’s feasible to believe a season of that caliber could have helped accelerate Northwestern’s ascension through the middle of the Big Ten.
In reality, though, it’s hyperbolic to think this loss cost the Wildcats their next six games. A conservative estimate figures Northwestern would have finished the season with roughly eight wins if they’d pulled out the October 5 win.
Eight wins would have constituted a nice season for Northwestern, but it is a stretch to think it would have significantly altered the program’s long-term trajectory.
The worst part about Northwestern’s loss to Ohio State is the team still has not played in a game of this magnitude since the matchup. And yes, I was at both Northwestern’s Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis two years ago and the game against Ohio State in 2013.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team has played in plenty of big games since then — the bad 2015 loss at Michigan, the 2018 Notre Dame game at Ryan Field, the Big Ten-West clinching victory at Iowa and of course the Big Ten Championship. But none of those games had the atmosphere that the 2013 game did.
I was only 12 years old at the time, but I remember it vividly. From “Mike & Mike” on Friday morning to College Gameday on Saturday morning to hearing “Baba O’Riley” roar through a packed Ryan Field as OSU and NU kicked off in front of the entire nation, and yes, all the way to Kain Colter coming up inches short on a pivotal fourth down, there has not been a Northwestern football weekend with more at stake since that early October weekend seven years ago.
I can only hope that there’s another one, with championship aspirations on the line, like it soon.