Football: 3 years after ‘GameDay,’ Northwestern and Ohio State reconvene


Daily file photo by Brian Lee

Students fill Ryan Field during Northwestern’s loss to Ohio State in 2013. Since that game, the two programs have moved in very different directions.

Ben Pope, Reporter


Saturday’s matchup of Northwestern and Ohio State will mark the 1,120th day since the last football game between the two universities.

That’s 1,120 days since ESPN’s “College GameDay” visited Evanston, and a national audience watched the Wildcats come within six minutes of earning their first top-five win in 54 years.

That’s 1,120 days since, in the words of now-senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, “people that didn’t know about Northwestern knew about Northwestern.”

And that’s 1,120 days that have reestablished the longstanding divide between two programs that, on one chilly night in 2013, squarely traded blow after blow until the closing minutes of the visitors’ back-and-forth 40-30 victory.

For 1,120 days ago — October 5, 2013 — NU and Ohio State laid joint claim to the center of the college football universe.

Thousands of students packed the Lakefill at dawn for the lone appearance of the “GameDay” pregame show in Evanston in the past 21 years, then thousands more crammed into Ryan Field for a primetime matchup between the No. 15 Cats and No. 4 Buckeyes.

Announcer Brent Musberger opened his broadcast on ABC by calling it “one of the biggest games ever at Northwestern,” and 6.6 million people watched the proceedings, more than twice as many viewers as watched the other primetime games on FOX and NBC. NU nearly won what was seen as a matchup of premier Big Ten contenders, leading by as many as 10 points in the second half and maintaining that edge until future NFL running back Carlos Hyde scored the go-ahead touchdown for Ohio State with just 5:22 left.

“That was a pretty intense game because there’s a lot of guys on this team who are from the state of Ohio, and sometimes guys play with a chip on their shoulders because they didn’t necessarily get that Ohio State offer that they deserved,” said Odenigbo, the only active NU player who appeared in the game.

Despite the loss, the Cats’ earned the respect of the nation and of their high-caliber opponent, with legendary Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer praising NU’s “borderline great players” and “scheme that’s hard to defend” in his postgame comments.

And then the 2013 season — and any semblance of similarity between the two teams — collapsed.

The Cats were throttled 35-6 by Wisconsin the following week and then lost their next five games as well, with only a meaningless season-ending win over Illinois saving them from an 0-8 conference record.

The time since has only exacerbated the schism.

In the past 1,120 days, NU has put together a 20-19 record, played in front of a total of 832,844 fans at Ryan Field and received four commitments from four- or five-star recruits.

In the same time period, Ohio State has tallied a 38-5 record, captured the 2014 national title, played in front of more than 2.2 million fans at Ohio Stadium and hauled in 67 four- or five-star recruits, including seven that also held scholarship offers from the Cats.

Asked Monday if he’s ever beaten Meyer in a recruiting battle, coach Pat Fitzgerald gave a quick and decisive answer: “No.”

“That would be 0-for-a-decade,” Fitzgerald added. “Sounds like my record against them.”

In fact, it sounds almost like NU’s record against them for the past half-century. The Buckeyes boast a record of 34-2 against the Cats dating back to 1964, including wins by 35 or more points in the two schools’ last four consecutive meetings prior to the 2013 thriller.

The odds are stacked against that record being cut to 34-3 this weekend. Despite Ohio State’s stunning 24-21 loss at Penn State last week, the betting line for Saturday’s contest opened at 23.5 points, then moved to 27.5 points, and ESPN projections give NU a mere 6.6 percent chance of winning. Fitzgerald openly lauded how talented the Buckeyes are.

“I wish I could say there are 11 NFL players (on their roster),” he said. “There’s not. There’s like everybody that goes on the field is a potential NFL player. If I were to mention all the starters, then I would be doing an injustice to the backups.”

Millions will watch on ESPN’s national broadcast at 2:30 p.m. this weekend — certainly a large audience for the Cats, who haven’t played on a network more prominent than ESPNU or Big Ten Network yet this season.

But gone is the same fanfare that enveloped the 2013 game.

No matter how many local friends and family Odenigbo and the 20 other Ohio natives on the Cats’ current roster bring along to Columbus on Saturday, few of the 100,000 people who will fill Ohio Stadium will believe the Cats have any shot of keeping pace. The thousands of raucous NU students won’t be there. Brent Musburger won’t be there. The focus of the college football nation won’t be there.

Only Fitzgerald, Odenigbo and the rest of the Cats will, seeking to defy the odds and reverse the course of the past 1,120 decisive days.

“I don’t know how we’re going to block them,” Fitzgerald said bluntly. “But we’ve got to do everything we can.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Ohio State played in the 2015 national championship. It played in the Fiesta Bowl.