EVANSTON, Ill. — Ohio State sure knows how to ruin a party.
Before a bipartisan but foundation-rattling homecoming crowd, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes escaped Northwestern with a 40-30 comeback victory and their national championship dream intact Saturday night.
A showdown hyped as the biggest in Ryan Field history and a candidate for the Big Ten’s game of the year lived up to the billing — and then some.
In a game OSU coach Urban Meyer labeled a “15-round fight,” the Buckeyes (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) fell behind early for the first time this season, trailed by 10 points late in the third quarter, and stared at a 30-27 deficit in the fourth quarter. But each time, riding the outsized shoulders of senior running back Carlos Hyde, the visitors rallied — the final salvo a winning seven-yard Hyde run with 5:22 left.
A pair of Hyde touchdown runs bookended an interception by OSU cornerback Doran Grant at the Northwestern 16-yard line to push the Buckeyes ahead 27-23 before the night made another dramatic turn.
The Wildcats (4-1, 0-1) responded with a nine-yard TD pass from scrambling quarterback Trevor Siemian to Cameron Dickerson with 9:10 remaining, only to watch the Buckeyes answer with an eight-play, 81-yard drive that put them ahead 34-30.
Hyde’s winning run was the defining moment of a tour-de-force night that left him in tears afterward. After being suspended the first three games, he was not only back in full Saturday but undisputedly the Buckeyes’ engine. Hyde finished with a career-high 168 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries — including 112 yards and all three scores in the second half.
“I’m just loving every moment of this,” Hyde said. “I’m thankful.”
Said Meyer: “He’s the horse right now. That tells you how much I trust the kid to have him do that tonight.”
OSU’s defense, meanwhile, allowed 437 yards but delivered when it mattered most. The Buckeyes effectively iced the game on a late fourth-and-1 stand and put the finishing touches on its national-best 18th straight win — and covered the spread — when defensive end Joey Bosa recovered a fumble in the end zone with no time left.
The Buckeyes beat Northwestern for the 29th time in the schools’ last 30 meetings and gained a clear inside path to a Big Ten championship. They do not play another ranked team until the season finale at No. 19 Michigan.
“What a football game,” Meyer said.
It was a rewarding finish to an uneven night that had Meyer at one point questioning whether he should pull quarterback Braxton Miller.
After matching a career-high with four TD passes last week in his first game back from a strained knee ligament, Miller labored through an uneven performance.
For much of the night, Miller was tentative running, scattershot throwing, and prone to the back-bending turnover. He completed his first five passes but was 2-of-10 the rest of the half, his start symbolized by a third-and-goal pass that sailed three feet over an open Chris Fields in the corner of the end zone. Miller finished 15-of-26 passing for 203 yards and an interception.
“My heart bleeds," Meyer said. "I almost put [backup Kenny Guiton] in. ... But we were riding [Miller]."
Miller also fumbled a read-option deep in Ohio State territory that set up the Wildcats’ first touchdown — a nine-yard pass from one quarterback (Siemian) to another (Kain Colter).
The turnover, though, was only the first of many signs OSU would have better nights.
After cornerback Bradley Roby blocked and recovered a punt in the end zone to put the Buckeyes ahead 10-7 late in the first quarter.
Northwestern answered with a 10-play, 75-yard TD drive to nudge in front 14-10, then pressured Ohio State into one mistake after another. The first was a gamble— a fake punt by Cameron Johnston from the OSU 25.
Trailing 23-13, Miller lost another fumble on first-and-goal at the Northwestern 7.
But Ohio State responded with the first of several big defensive stops, and turned to Hyde. The senior running back punched in a four-yard TD to pull OSU within three and followed the pick by Grant with a two-yard TD run that put the Buckeyes ahead 27-23.