EVANSTON, Ill. — Thank you, Ohio State and Northwestern. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
That's from the Big Ten commissioner and the Big Ten office and Big Ten fans and Big Ten sportswriters and anybody else involved in following what to this point has been a hard-to-watch football season.
No. 4 Ohio State's 40-30 victory Saturday night over No. 16 Northwestern was an entertaining showpiece that this league sorely needed to polish its national image.
It was a tantalizing mix of offense, defense, interesting special teams play and officiating drama. Plus, it was a stomach-spinner for gamblers as OSU's touchdown on the game's final play, as the Wildcats fired laterals in desperation into their own end zone, produced a fumble recovery for one of the weirdest backdoor covers ever.
In the end, the Buckeyes (6-0, 2-0) extended their national-best winning streak to 18 games, much to the chagrin of others around the league.
Urban Meyer, known on the recruiting trail as Dr. Slick, is the coach other coaches love to hate. I could hear the chortling from Legends and Leaders alike when Meyer outsmarted himself late in the first half with a failed fake punt at his own 32-yard line. That led to a Northwestern field goal and a 20-13 lead.
But you can't deny the work Meyer and Ohio State did to rally from 10 points down in the third quarter and three down in the fourth.
A game ball will go to Buckeye tailback Carlos Hyde, but that hardly seems sufficient to mark his contribution.
The 6-foot, 235-pound senior from Naples, Fla. — suspended the first three games for a summer bar incident involving a female patron — ran over, around and through Northwestern's defense.
He scored three second-half touchdowns and plowed for 112 of his 168 yards in the second half when everyone in Ryan Field and on national TV knew he would carry the ball.
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Just as big a story, though, was Northwestern (4-1, 0-1) failing to hold another fourth-quarter lead.
Throughout the offseason, the Wildcats wore workout shirts with “5:03” printed on them. That was how close they were to being undefeated in 2012 instead of 10-3 after surrendering late leads to Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan.
This season would be different, coach Pat Fitzgerald preached. Playing close and getting to bowl games weren't enough anymore.
“The expectation,” he said at Big Ten media days, “is to win championships.”
That's not out of the question. One loss to a cross-division team is hardly fatal. But this hurt. A lot.
Northwestern was a whisker away from its first win over a Top 5 foe in 54 years (14-10 over No. 5 Iowa in 1959). Add in the potential validation of Fitzgerald's theme for the program and the satisfaction of beating the league's best team, and who knows what the Wildcats might have gone on and done.
Again, the season is far from over. You begin to wonder, though, when those barriers will ever come down.
Other storylines from Saturday night:
Ľ The refereeing drama was so intense that I looked to see if anyone from Texas was in the press box.
Early in the fourth quarter, Hyde supposedly was stopped at the Northwestern 1-yard line on third-and-goal. Meyer sent his field-goal team out, then called time, then the officials reviewed the previous play. The call on Hyde was reversed, resulting in a touchdown and a 27-23 OSU lead.
On the next drive, a phantom holding call at the Ohio State 5 cost Northwestern a touchdown. But the Wildcats bounced back to score two plays later and take a 30-27 lead.
Then with 2:56 to play, Northwestern faced fourth-and-1 at the Ohio State 29. Quarterback Kain Colter tried a quarterback sneak, but fumbled the snap. He dropped to a knee, but raised it before gaining possession. Still, he was marked short of a first down, and Northwestern's challenge of the spot was denied.
Ľ Offenses marched up and down the field, but stumbled near the goal line. Drives of 65, 72, 68 and 60 yards produced field goals, not touchdowns. Ohio State didn't score an offensive touchdown until the 3:54 mark of the third quarter.
Ľ Welcome back, Venric Mark. All-Americans are in short supply in the Big Ten, and the Northwestern tailback and return whiz had played in only one game so far this season because of a leg ailment.
He soon proved he was back at full speed — and full strength, as 6-foot-1, 203-pound Ohio State cornerback Corey Brown found out when the 5-8, 180-pound Mark trucked him on a 5-yard run two plays before a Northwestern touchdown. Mark also returned a kickoff 38 yards to give the Wildcats good field position on their final full possession.
Ľ Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller proved he's human by losing two fumbles. One was at his own 23, setting up Northwestern's first touchdown. The other was at the Wildcat 7, killing a seven-play, 58-yard drive early in the third quarter. He also had a tipped pass intercepted.
Still, Miller regrouped enough to lead three second-half touchdown drives.
Whew! That was a blast. The only thing I can think to top it would be a rematch in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.