Football: Difficult late fourth-down decision ends up moot for Northwestern in Columbus


Daniel Tian/Daily Senior Staffer

Senior kicker Jack Mitchell takes aim at a 33-yard field goal late in Saturday’s loss to Ohio State. Northwestern kicked a late field goal in the red zone on its last possession with the ball in the 24-20 loss.

Max Schuman, Sports Editor


COLUMBUS, Ohio — With less than four minutes left in Saturday’s game against No. 6 Ohio State, coach Pat Fitzgerald had a choice to make.

Northwestern (4-4, 3-2 Big Ten) trailed the Buckeyes (7-1, 4-1) 24-17 when its potentially game-tying drive stalled in the red zone. The Wildcats suddenly faced a fourth-and-goal from Ohio State’s 15 with two options: kick a 33-yard field goal to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to four or go for an unlikely touchdown to tie the game.

Fitzgerald chose the former, sending out senior kicker Jack Mitchell for a successful kick. It was the last time NU would see the ball in its 24-20 defeat.

“I felt like if we get points there, we get a stop; I have three timeouts, three-and-a-half minutes left,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what went into it, and I ended up one call short.”

The three points left the Cats needing a defensive stop and a touchdown on their ensuing possession to win the game. It seemed counterintuitive for NU to give up the ball with a touchdown in sight given that it would need another touchdown even after a field goal.

Converting from 15 yards away with the Buckeyes’ defense keyed on keeping the Cats from scoring would have been a tough ask, but NU’s offense had been solid for much of the game, putting up more than 400 yards of offense and succeeding on numerous third- and fourth-down plays. Fitzgerald had already shown a willingness to be aggressive as the underdog in the game, and the Cats rewarded him with two fourth-down conversions on Ohio State’s side of the field, each coming on drives that ended in NU touchdowns.

“We’ve realized we can beat some really good teams,” sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “We’ve realized we’re a good offense.”

In the moment, though, Fitzgerald took the ball from his offense. And regardless of his choice, NU’s defense would need to keep the Buckeyes from moving down the field on the next possession to give the Cats a chance.

On the final drive of the game, the defense nearly held up its end of the bargain, but came up short. NU forced two third downs with eight or more yards to go on Ohio State’s final drive, but Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett converted the first one through the air and the second on a designed run that went for 35 yards, ending the Cats’ upset hopes.

“We got them in the positions that we wanted,” junior linebacker Anthony Walker said. “We have to be able to make that play to get off the field.”

Without a stop, the choice between kicking a field goal and going for a touchdown on that fourth-and-15 became largely academic. Choosing the more guaranteed points over a slim chance at tying the game likely didn’t cost the NU the victory nor did it wipe away a solid effort against one of the best teams in the country.

But in a game they nearly won, the final play offensive play for the Cats will be remembered.

“If I go for it right there and we score, we’re tied, and we’re probably still playing,” Fitzgerald said. “I chose to take the points, expecting us to get a stop…and we didn’t get it done.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @maxschuman28