EVANSTON, Ill. - Ohio State had made a habit out of winning close games.
And it looked as if the Buckeyes might escape once again late Saturday night, when they rallied to score 10 points in the final 8:46 of regulation to force overtime against Northwestern.
But normally reliable kicker Mike Nugent pushed a 40-yard field-goal attempt wide right on Ohio State's first series of overtime, and Northwestern's Noah Herron scored on a one-yard run on the ensuing possession as the Wildcats upset the Buckeyes 33-27 at Ryan Field.
"We lost to a team we didn't think we could lose to," OSU offensive tackle Rob Sims said. "We didn't deserve to win. They wanted it. They deserved it. They came to play."
The victory was the Wildcats' first against Ohio State in 33 years and snapped a 24-game losing streak in the series. They also dealt the Buckeyes - who tumbled from No. 7 to No. 18 in the Associated Press poll yesterday - their first setback in Evanston since 1958.
"Thirty-three years was long enough," Northwestern coach Randy Walker said.
While Nugent's first miss in 10 tries didn't directly cost the Buckeyes the game in overtime - Herron scored the game-winning touchdown four plays after Nugent misfired on his three-pointer - he shouldered some of the blame for the Buckeyes' first loss in four games.
"I really feel like I let my teammates down," said Nugent, who earlier was successful on field goals of 34 and 29 yards. "That last one was as good a ball as I hit all night. It felt really good. I thought it was going to go in, but it started off to the right. And, unlike most of the balls I kick, it didn't come back over toward the middle."
Linebacker Bobby Carpenter was quick to absolve Nugent of any blame for the loss, just Ohio State's third in its last 31 games.
"I'd take Mike Nugent on my team any day," Carpenter said. "He's going to miss a kick every now and then, but he's a great kicker."
Nugent wasn't the only one who didn't come through for the Buckeyes.
Their running game once again sputtered as freshman backup tailback Antonio Pitttman and senior starter Lydell Ross could only muster 32 and 31 yards, respectively, on 11 carries each. The Buckeyes finished with just 97 yards on the ground on 37 carries, a 2.6 average.
"What our running game needs to be, is better," OSU coach Jim Tressel said. "That's reality. We have to become a better team in a lot of areas, and the run game is one of them."
Quarterback Justin Zwick didn't get on track until the fourth quarter against one of the Big Ten's worst defenses. He finished 18 of 38 for 211 yards, but 90 of those came in the fourth quarter, when he rallied the Buckeyes from a 27-17 deficit.
On the five-play, 69-yard drive that tied the score at 27-27 with 1:54 left, it was Zwick's 18-yard run that got it started and his 21-yard pass to Santonio Holmes that ended it. Three minutes earlier, Zwick was intercepted in the end zone by Jeff Backes on an ill-advised, third-and-goal pass that was intended for Bam Childress.
Zwick picked up 28 yards on 11 carries, but he also was sacked four times, and his fumble just before halftime set up the field goal that allowed Northwestern to take a 13-10 lead into the locker room.
"The game is four quarters long, so you really can't be happy about doing well in the fourth quarter," Zwick said. "You've got to play a game with no mistakes, no turnovers, and we weren't able to do that.'
The Buckeyes had won 13 of their previous 14 games decided by seven points or less.
"We tried to come back," Zwick said. "We've been in a lot of close games and we've always come out on top. This is something we haven't known the last couple of years, so we have to learn from it. It was frustrating, when you're that close. We've got to have a balanced offense."
There were other troubling aspects for the Buckeyes, starting with the way the Wildcats shredded their defense for 444 yards.
Quarterback Brett Basanez threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns, mostly on screen passes and misdirection plays, and Herron added 113 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning run in overtime.
"They had a good plan and they executed," Tressel said. "Sometimes as an offense, you stay a step ahead of the defense, and there was a period they were doing that. We needed to do a lot of things better on defense."
Northwestern converted 12 of 20 third-down plays against the Buckeyes defense. Three of the conversions were on third-and-11 plays and two came on third-and-10.
"We did some good things, but you can can't come on the road and do some good things against a team that's doing a lot of good things, and expect to win," Tressel said. "That's a lesson we learned."
Contact Ron Musselman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6474.42.05666 -87.68659