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COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer has been the head coach in 144 college football games. He has rebuilt a moribund program at Bowling Green State University, won two national championships at Florida, and guided Utah and Ohio State to perfect seasons.
Yet there is one Saturday that resonates unlike any other.
When Meyer leads the fourth-ranked Buckeyes to No. 16 Northwestern, he will return to the scene of what he calls the wildest game of his 28-year coaching career.
It was November, 2001, and in a thrown-together meeting that was not supposed to happen, his first BG team delivered a result that was not supposed to happen. The Falcons rallied for a then NCAA-record 29 points in the fourth quarter and stunned the defending Big Ten champions on their home field 43-42 on a last-second two-point conversion.
“Coaches are weird ducks, man,” Meyer said this week. “I don’t know my address, but I can tell you every play in that game, absolutely.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman, then the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, called it “one of those memories you never forget.”
How could anyone among the 23,545 at Ryan Field?
A game that involved four current Big Ten coaches — including the principals Saturday night — and is credited with jump-starting a BG renaissance had it all. Two pioneering spread offenses combining for 1,242 yards. The Falcons facing a 14-point deficit with less than three minutes left. A “miracle” late fumble. The boldest call of Meyer’s career. And finally, a celebration that refused to end.
“We had a six‑hour bus ride, and we refused to leave the locker room for about 2½ hours,” Meyer said. “Those kids wouldn’t leave, and I wouldn’t leave with them. We were just crying and enjoying it.”
In a game that was a late addition to the schedule after Bowling Green and Northwestern both had post-9/11 cancellations, few gave the visitors much hope. BG was no longer in contention for the Mid-American Conference title with three losses in its last six games while the Wildcats, though 4-5, had been ranked as high as 14th weeks earlier.
The afternoon unfurled as expected. The Wildcats’ offense, led by quarterback Zak Kustok and overseen by coordinator and now-Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, ran 97 plays and did not punt once. By the time BG athletic director Paul Krebs made his way from the press box to the field late in the fourth quarter, the Falcons trailed 42-28.
“People were shaking my hand, saying, ‘Nice game, good try,’ ” said Krebs, currently the AD at New Mexico.
Added Meyer: “The game is over.”
A funny thing happened, though.
BG’s sideline regained its bounce when quarterback Josh Harris ran for a three-yard TD that cut it to 42-35 with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left. Meyer gathered his team on the sideline and laid out the exit strategy: They would stop NU, get the ball back, score, and punch in a winning two-point conversion.
BG did just that, though with a twist to the script. After a failed onside kick, NU drove to the Falcons’ 22. The Wildcats ran for what would have been a game-clinching first down with 1:35 remaining ... if BG’s Karl Rose had not rattled the ball loose and senior defensive end Ryan Wingrove engulfed it.
“It was a miracle,” said offensive tackle Dennis Wendel, now the athletic director at St. Henry (Ohio) High.
The Falcons tore down the field, the drive ending with Harris’ five-yard TD pass to Robert Redd with 36 seconds left. Down one, Meyer stuck to his pledge and waved Cole Magner, a freshman receiver from Alaska, to the sideline.
“Coach had a trick play or a two-point play that we practiced each week for each team,” Magner said in a phone interview from Long Island, N.Y., where he is a district manager for a distributing company. “So that particular play was called ‘Wildcat.’ He said, ‘Hey, Cole, we’re going to run Wildcat.’
“I look at him and said, ‘Cool.’ I remember the look that he gave me like, ‘Are you serious? You just said, cool? This is the biggest play in your entire life.’ ”
Asked if he was just as daring today, Meyer laughed.
“No,” he said. “Not at all.”
Back then, though, with a class of seniors he so badly wanted to reward after BG had endured six straight losing seasons, Meyer felt he had no choice. Harris rolled left, then pitched the ball to Magner on a reverse for the score.
“I’m almost speechless,” said Northwestern coach Randy Walker, who died of a heart attack in 2006 and was succeeded by Pat Fitzgerald, his linebacker coach that day.
Meyer and his players were the same way, retreating to the cramped visitors’ locker room to belt a moshing rendition of “Ay Ziggy Zoomba.”
“You were scared you were going to get trampled,” Wendel said. “It was an unbelievable atmosphere.”
The Falcons finished 8-3 to complete the biggest turnaround in the country and went 9-3 the next season, forging the bedrock for consecutive bowl-winning teams under Gregg Brandon in 2003 and 2004.
Now atop one of football’s biggest stages, Meyer will return for the first time Saturday night to the place where it began.
“That day,” Magner said, “was basically Urban’s big coming-out party.”