EVANSTON, Ill. — As it did in the 2020 Big Ten Championship, Northwestern came oh-so close to shocking the world.
On a windy and rainy day at Ryan Field, the Wildcats (1-8, 1-5 B1G) came just short of pulling off an upset over No. 2 Ohio State (9-0, 6-0 B1G), falling to the Buckeyes 21-7.
For the ‘Cats, it was Evan Hull who led the way with 122 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. Brendan Sullivan added 55 yards on 12 carries and completed 10-of-14 passes for 79 yards.
Without TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State relied on Miyan Williams for most of its offense. The junior rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, while C.J. Stroud added 79 yards on the ground and 76 through the air on 10-of-26 passing.
Starting on their own 20, the Buckeyes went three-and-out on their first drive. A few Stroud incompletions intended for Julian Fleming brought up fourth down. The ensuing punt from Jesse Mirco went 34 yards into the strong wind, setting up Northwestern at its own 40-yard line.
The ‘Cats also failed to get anything going on their first drive. Ohio State stifled Evan Hull in the backfield twice before J.T. Tuimoloau came screaming off the edge to knock away a screen on third down. Luke Akers’ boot went through the back of the end zone, and an illegal formation penalty on Northwestern set up the Buckeyes on their 25 yard-line.
Ohio State’s offense moved the chains for the first time after a hold from Devin O’Rourke. Despite a fantastic pass breakup from Cameron Mitchell, its rushing attack seemed to be gaining momentum after Stroud scampered for seven yards on third down and Miyan Williams converted the ensuing fourth-and-short. But the drive petered out at NU’s 47, and the Buckeyes punted away.
It was then when the Wildcats unleashed a methodical drive. Going up-tempo, Northwestern’s rushing attack gashed the Ohio State defense. Cam Porter moved the chains twice with runs of 13 and 10 yards, and Bryce Kirtz followed that up with a 12-yard reception to put the Wildcats in OSU territory. After a few short runs from Hull, the junior finally broke through with a 16-yard dash into the end zone to draw first blood, putting Northwestern up 7-0.
The two teams then traded three-and-outs. On the following drive, Stroud completed his first pass of the day to Emeka Egbuka for seven yards, setting up a third-and-one. However, Northwestern’s front seven shut down Williams twice to force a turnover on downs, which set up the ‘Cats at the Ohio State 36.
NU appeared primed to capitalize on its good field position after Sullivan scampered for six yards to convert on third down and move to Ohio State’s 27. But the Buckeyes limited Porter and Hull to a few short runs, bringing up a fourth-and-nine at the OSU 25. Since the first quarter ended in the middle of the drive, Northwestern was driving against the wind, which would have made a field goal try especially difficult. So, the ‘Cats went for it, but their attempt fell short after Sullivan’s pass to Malik Washington only went for four yards.
Once again, Northwestern stuffed Ohio State’s offense and forced yet another three-and-out. Hull continued to impress on the ground with a 17-yard run down the left sideline, but OSU forced a fourth down at midfield when it held Hull to a five-yard run. Northwestern’s offense stayed on the field temporarily, but Pat Fitzgerald eventually brought out the punt team after the play clock wound down.
The two teams traded punts, but Hunter Renner’s 36-yard boot set the Buckeyes up in NU territory. Their offense finally awoke, as Stroud converted another fourth-and-short with an outside run off a play fake, which fooled the ‘Cats and went for 16 yards. Two plays later, Egbuka ripped off a 15-yard touchdown run, spinning into the end zone to even the score at seven with 2:26 remaining in the half.
From there, Northwestern ran out the clock after Sullivan converted a third-and-two with a six-yard run, leaving the score at 7-7 going into the half.
NU began the second half with a flurry of Wildcat runs with Hull. Mike Bajakian called the running back’s number six of the drive’s seven plays, and picked up 19 yards and a first down. However, the last of those runs came on a Wildcat out of the shotgun on fourth-and-one at the Northwestern 45, which the Buckeyes halted to force another turnover on downs.
Ohio State’s offense seized the opportunity, as Stroud converted a third-and-11 with a strike to Marvin Harrison Jr. A few plays later, Williams ripped off a 27-yard run, flipping the field en route to a go-ahead touchdown. With the extra point from Noah Ruggles, the Buckeyes took a 14-7 lead.
Porter kicked off the drive with runs of 16 and nine. Northwestern appeared to be brewing up a response before Washington caught a pass for nine on third down. The drive stalled there, though, and Renner punted away from the OSU 46.
Despite a 12-yard reception from Harrison and a 12-yard run from Williams, a few overthrows from Stroud and a drop from Cade Stover forced Ohio State to punt. The Buckeyes’ miscommunication throughout the drive demonstrated the importance of star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who missed the game with a hamstring injury.
A 48-yard punt from Mirco left Northwestern at its four-yard line, and a false start on Vince Picozzi moved them back even further. But big runs from Hull and Sullivan moved the ‘Cats out from their own end zone’s shadow. NU converted another third down after the quarterback inexplicably evaded two Ohio State pass rushers, changed direction and found Washington on the opposite side.
Sullivan converted two more third downs on the drive, connecting with Porter for 10 yards and rushing for eight. That set the Wildcats up at the OSU 38, but the offense stalled there. A third down drop by Genson Hooper Price and Sullivan’s failure to connect with an open Donny Navarro III proved critical, and Northwestern turned it over on downs again.
Both teams traded three-and-outs again before Ohio State began a game-sealing drive. A 44-yard run by Stroud down the right sideline put OSU inside the Northwestern 10. Williams punctuated the drive with his second score of the day from two yards out, giving the Buckeyes a 21-7 lead with 4:21 remaining in the game.
Sullivan kicked off the following drive with a 13-yard strike to Washington, which put the ‘Cats in opposing territory. On the next play, the sophomore got hit hard on a one-yard run. He would leave the game with an injury and would not return. Ryan Hilinski replaced the Michigan native but could not get anything going. He failed to connect with Jacob Gill on third and fourth down, giving the Buckeyes the ball back. They would drain the clock on their next drive to effectively close out the game.
Northwestern will head back on the road next Saturday to take on Minnesota. The start time is yet to be announced.