Dave Eanet, the play-by-play broadcaster for Northwestern, was attending a booster banquet at a Chicago hotel when he listened to Mike Adamle give a rousing pep talk.
It was in the days leading up to the Wildcats’ home football game against seventh-ranked Ohio State on Oct. 2, 2004.
Adamle, a former All-America fullback at Northwestern, told the crowd about a recent dream. It involved running back Noah Herron. To break a 33-year losing streak to the Buckeyes, it would be Herron, who wore uniform No. 33, who would score the winning touchdown.
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The prediction stirred the audience.
Fifteen years later, Eanet recalled an eerie feeling. Herron did sneak into the end zone for the winning touchdown in overtime to upend the Buckeyes.
“If you believe in numerology, there was something to be said for that,” Eanet said.
During his call of Herron’s winning run on radio, Eanet remarked on the coincidence of events. He added that it was Herron’s 33rd carry that gave the Wildcats a 33-27 win.
The sequence stands as a rare moment in the series between the teams, the one instance in nearly half a century that Northwestern, then an 11-point underdog, toppled Ohio State. They again meet at Ryan Field this week, where the Buckeyes will arrive Friday night as heavy favorites.
The 2004 loss stunned the Buckeyes, their first to the Wildcats since 1971 and first in Evanston since 1958.
“It’s not that we took them lightly,” said former Ohio State linebacker Bobby Carpenter, then a junior, “but I don’t think you believed you could lose to Northwestern.”
It was a significant milestone for Northwestern. As the program was revitalized by Gary Barnett in the mid-1990s, then continued in the following seasons under Randy Walker, it had toppled powerhouses in the Big Ten — including Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin — with one exception. Ohio State remained elusive.
The triumph over the Buckeyes was the final feather in their cap and a proud moment in particular for Walker, a native of Troy who played and coached at Miami in nearby Oxford.
Along with capitalizing on three Buckeyes turnovers, the Wildcats more than held their own. They never trailed and led 27-17 early in the fourth quarter before quarterback Justin Zwick led a touchdown drive in the final minutes of regulation, hitting Santonio Holmes for a 21-yard touchdown pass, to tie the score. On the first drive of overtime, Mike Nugent pushed a 40-yard field goal attempt wide right for the Buckeyes.
At that moment, Eanet realized the Wildcats might pull off the feat. Nugent won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker that year and made a winning kick to beat Marshall earlier in the season.
“If you see Nugent miss that field goal, then you think, 'OK, maybe this is their night,’ ” Eanet said.
The loss sent the Buckeyes into a relative tailspin. It was the first of three consecutive losses, a rare stretch of disappointment. They have suffered such a losing streak only one other time this century. Former linebacker Anthony Schlegel, then a junior, recalled the loss as “the beginning of the wave of adversity,” something that had not been seen under coach Jim Tressel.
Tressel had led the Buckeyes to a national championship in his second season, followed by a Fiesta Bowl win and top-five finish the following year. But midway through 2004, they were 3-3. Tressel kept calm, showing the same stoic exterior to his team. He never yelled at players in practice.
“He was the same guy the entire season,” Carpenter said. “ ‘You’ve won a national championship two years ago, but now you’re 3-3 at Ohio State? Are you kidding me?’ He was the same guy. We kept coming in and going to work. Keep grinding, keep grinding, it’ll be fine.”
Later in the season, Tressel switched starting quarterbacks, with Troy Smith replacing Zwick, but few changes were made.
“When your leadership doesn’t show panic, then you don’t panic, either,” Carpenter said. “You follow their lead.”
After the 3-3 start, the Buckeyes won five of their final six games, including a win over Michigan, and finished the season ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll after handling Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
“It was really through those three games of adversity where we started to figure out what the pieces were on all sides of the ball and all phases,” Schlegel said. “That's what really spurred us on. We had too much pride that we were going to let this be a completely lost year for Ohio State.”
The season became a turning point.
The Buckeyes went on to make six straight trips to BCS games under Tressel, including five top-five finishes in the AP poll and two national championship game appearances, far away from .500.