EDITOR’S NOTE – This season marks the 10-year anniversary of Ohio State’s 2002 national championship season. We will share stories on all 14 of OSU’s wins that season, including this look at the win over Northwestern. That game was played exactly 10 years ago today on Oct. 5, 2002.
Maurice Clarett dives for a TD at Northwestern
Autumn quarter classes began at Ohio State on Sept. 25, but it seems likely that the OSU football team will be taking some more detailed notes in the wake of its showing Oct. 5 at Northwestern.
The fifth-ranked Buckeyes prevailed 27-16 in their first Big Ten road game of the season, but it was far from easy.
Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) allowed a pair of long special teams returns, while freshman tailback Maurice Clarett lost three fumbles. Those factors allowed Northwestern (2-4,0-2), a heavy underdog, to stick around until the closing minutes before a crowd of 43,489 at Ryan Field.
“I think coming into the game, I took them too lightly, and you saw the results,” admitted Clarett, who still managed 140 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
The warning signals were everywhere after the Buckeyes outlasted the young Wildcats, who started just four seniors. OSU needed a goal-line stand and a missed NU chip shot field goal in the final seconds of the first half just to preserve a tenuous 14-9 halftime lead.
“I don’t think anybody is happy with the way things ended up,” said OSU tight end Ben Hartsock. “Of course, we got the ‘W’. But we’re not going to be able to play like this in the weeks to come and be a contender for the Big Ten championship.”
OSU coach Jim Tressel has taken his team on the road twice now and has had to endure nail-biters each time. On Sept. 21, OSU trailed Cincinnati 12-7 at halftime before needing a late touchdown and a red-zone stop in the final seconds to escape with a narrow 23-19 win.
“We’ve got to do better on the road,” Tressel said. “There are certain things you have to do on the road if you want to have a chance to win. We have not done those things yet. There is no way we’ll win our next away game if we make these same mistakes.”
OSU hosts San Jose State for Homecoming Oct. 12, but Tressel was clearly alluding to his team’s next Big Ten game, a road contest at Wisconsin Oct. 19.
Northwestern came into this game 11th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (308.8 ypg) and scoring defense (40.0 ppg). The Buckeyes were able to outgain NU 455-396, grinding out 285 yards on the ground. But OSU’s longest run was a 23-yard scramble by quarterback Craig Krenzel, meaning the Buckeyes had to earn nearly every yard.
“I think everybody was in shock,” Clarett said. “We looked at it statistically and thought we would rip this team. I think we came out and took it kind of lightly. That’s what I think I did. I didn’t have my running style.”
During the game, it appeared that OSU running backs coach Tim Spencer and Clarett had words on the sideline. It also seemed that Tressel and Spencer openly debated sending Clarett back into the game – a debate Tressel won by putting Clarett back in.
Asked about his performance, Clarett said, “Horrible, horrible. This win doesn't feel good, but it's a win. We came out with the win. That’s all that matters to me.”
Krenzel was 11 of 22 passing for 170 yards. He also carried nine times for 62 yards. Lydell Ross spelled Clarett and carried 18 times for 83 yards.
Northwestern utilized its spread offense and enjoyed some success against the Buckeyes. Quarterback Brett Basanez, a redshirt freshman, was 24 of 45 passing for 283 yards and an interception. Tailback Jason Wright added 95 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries for the Wildcats.
There were three different occasions where NU had the ball at or inside the OSU 10-yard line, but managed just two field goals in those opportunities.
“We were making some plays and we were taking Ohio State to a place that they didn’t want to be, and that was in a ballgame,” said Northwestern coach Randy Walker. “But, as in every game, there were a handful of critical plays. The credit goes to Ohio State – they made them and we didn’t.”
Two of OSU’s first three possessions ended with Clarett fumbles. The second one set up a 26-yard field goal by NU’s David Wasielewski, putting the Wildcats up 3-0 midway through the first quarter.
The Buckeyes then drove 46 yards down to the NU 26. But Clarett was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 and the Wildcats regained possession.
Northwestern moved 64 yards in 10 plays before Wasielewski hit a 27-yard field goal to up the lead to 6-0 with 58 seconds left.
Ohio State answered with a six-play, 66-yard scoring drive. Krenzel came out firing, hitting passes of 13 yards to Chris Vance and 23 and 15 yards to Michael Jenkins. That set up Ross’ 3-yard touchdown run that put OSU up 7-6 with 13:15 left in the first half.
Wasielewski’s third field goal – a 37-yarder – made it 9-7 with 5:20 left in the first half.
OSU answered by going 63 yards in five plays to regain the lead. The big play was Krenzel’s 48-yard toss to a leaping Chris Gamble. Clarett did the rest, carrying on the next four plays including the 2-yard touchdown – a dive at the pylon – to make it 14-9 OSU with 2:43 left in the half.
Northwestern moved inside the OSU 10 in the final seconds of the half. But defensive end Will Smith tipped a third-down Basanez pass and Wasielewski missed an 18-yard field goal with 32 seconds left.
OSU’s Gamble returned the second-half kickoff 56 yards to the NU 44. But OSU could only get as close as the NU 24 and Mike Nugent came on and hit a 41-yard field goal for a 17-9 lead with 12:17 left in the third quarter.
After another Wasielewski missed field goal, OSU went 79 yards in 11 plays to extend the lead. Clarett carried five times for 35 yards on the drive, including the 20-yard touchdown that made it 24-9 with 6:33 left in the third quarter.
Northwestern rallied and moved 80 yards in nine plays.Wright capped it with a 9-yard TD run that cut the OSU lead to 24-16 with 1:57 left in the third.
OSU whittled five minutes off the clock before settling for Nugent’s 30-yard field goal that pushed the lead to 27-16 with 11:28 left.
Clarett lost his third fumble, which NU’s Luis Castillo recovered at the NU 46 with 4:22 left. But the Buckeyes forced a pair of late turnovers of their own – Cie Grant intercepted a Basanez punt and fellow linebacker Matt Wilhelm caused a fumble that Donnie Nickey recovered – to salt this one away.
"That's something we can come away with, that we continue to be great in the red zone,'' Wilhelm said. "That's a totally different ballgame if they score a couple of times.''
Notables: OSU defeated Northwestern for the 23rd consecutive time. NU’s last win over OSU came in 1971 in Columbus and the Wildcats’ last win over OSU in Evanston was in 1958, when Ara Parseghian was the NU head coach … Also, OSU improved to 6-0 for the first time since 1998, when the Buckeyes opened 8-0.
Next Up: The Buckeyes hosted San Jose State on Oct. 12, 2002.
Relive The Memories
You can still purchase our book on the 2003 Ohio State-Miami (Fla.) Fiesta Bowl, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," directly on eBay with a credit card.
You can click here for more details on the book, including sample pages of the cover, table of contents, my introduction and the chapter on the pivotal second overtime.
To order directly online, click this link for eBay.
Or you may send a check or money order for $20 ($17 for the book, $3 for shipping) to:
P.O. Box 34
Pataskala, OH 43062
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