Moral victory vs. OSU leaves Wildcats wanting
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Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde stretches the ball over the goal line for a touchdown, as determined by video review, in the fourth quarter Saturday night against Northwestern.
There were so many victories for Northwestern on Saturday.
They drew ESPN's "College GameDay" to campus for the first time, sold out a raucous Ryan Field, played on national TV, and in a game that could have vaulted them into the Big Ten title picture and perhaps even the national championship conversation.
And that was all so very cute, but the one victory the Wildcats really wanted was the one they could not get against the No. 4-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.
That was the one on the field.
Once again, Northwestern settled for the unpalatable and eminently forgettable moral victory in Evanston, where Ohio State (6-0) had to come from behind in the final six minutes to defeat the 16th-ranked Wildcats 40-30.
"You want to be on this type of stage," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "This is why you want to play Big Ten football. For our guys, in particular, it's an opportunity to compete against a team that's outstanding on this stage.
"But our goals aren't to be cute. Our goals aren't to win a couple games. Our goals are to be champions. We've got a couple of steps in that direction over my time, and that's what we're working to build."
The Cats definitely have something to build on after they pushed the Buckeyes to the limit, but they took a step back late in the game when they couldn't manage a fourth-and-inches on their final drive, handing the ball back to Ohio State.
Up until then, they did just about everything they could to frighten the Buckeyes, but that's neither a surprise nor is it news.
What will be news is when it's not news that "GameDay" is in Evanston, when every game is packed to the rafters with purple instead of half red, and when each week continues a march toward the top of the national standings, not merely the conference standings.
When expectations reach that level and competing at the highest level is not at all charming or startling, you get the feeling that only then will Fitzgerald be satisfied.
"There's a talent gap between anybody in the top five and everybody else," Fitzgerald said. "But I think we're pretty darn talented, too. Beauty's in the eye of the beholder, and I think our guys are incredibly talented."
There appeared to be no talent gap Saturday night in Evanston when the Wildcats took a 20-13 lead into halftime, having given up a touchdown to the vaunted Buckeyes on only a blocked punt in the end zone.
It was Ohio State that looked intimidated and made the kind of mistakes Northwestern used to make, fumbling, stumbling and bumbling their way to a 23-13 deficit, while the Wildcats looked confident and composed.
But OSU's big-play offense — with a scoring average of 48 points per game — took over in the third and fourth quarters — with help from a crucial Trevor Siemian interception — and was able to pound it home when they needed it most, handing NU its 29th loss in the last 30 meetings between the two teams, and giving Ohio State a nation-best 18-game winning streak.
If it makes the Cats feel any better, the Buckeyes still haven't lost a game under Urban Meyer.
Of course, it doesn't. Fitzgerald has seen his teams outscored by 140 points in the four times he's faced them, and Northwestern missed out on a chance to start 5-0 in two straight seasons for the first time since 1904-05.
"I think we showed everyone in this conference and the country that these young men can play and we just have to coach them better," Fitzgerald said. "There are no moral victories, but our guys will come back next week.
"Obviously a disappointed locker room, but (we have) great leadership and we'll bounce back and have a challenge a week from now."
The expectations and excitement were as high as the stakes Saturday night — until the game was over.
Pat Fitzgerald will not rest until he can end a game this large feeling that same way.
•Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.
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