Northwestern accustomed to white-knuckle games

Ray Stein The Columbus Dispatch
Northwestern Wildcats running back John Moten IV (20) races into the end zone for a touchdown past Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Kendall Sheffield (8) and Ohio State Buckeyes safety Jordan Fuller (4) during the first quarter of the Big Ten Conference Football Championship between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday, December 1, 2018 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

INDIANAPOLIS — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald likes to describe his alma mater as a “white-collar school with a blue-collar mentality” on the football field.

For the Wildcats under Fitzgerald’s guidance — throughout this season as well as during his 13-year tenure — that has meant a lot of white-knuckle games.

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Nothing has come easily to Northwestern this season as it advanced to the Big Ten championship game for the first time. Then again, the Wildcats don’t give a quarter to anyone, which explains why they entered Saturday’s game against Ohio State having played all 12 games decided by 14 or fewer points.

Seven Northwestern games have been decided by single digits, including wins over Iowa, Purdue and, uh, Rutgers, and losses to Michigan and, uh, Akron.

So it’s no surprise that the Wildcats, despite being a 14-point underdog, played Ohio State tough before the Buckeyes pulled away late to win 45-24 in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Northwestern entered the Big Ten title game having won seven of eight games after a 1-3 start, which included losses to Duke (21-7) and Akron (39-34) and a 20-17 home loss to Michigan after leading 17-0. The Wildcats’ lone loss since September was a 31-21 defeat to playoff-bound Notre Dame on Nov. 3.

Fitzgerald, who has a 95-69 record since taking over Northwestern in 2006 after Randy Walker died of a heart attack, has fostered a never-quit mentality among his players.

“He pushes us to be the best that we can, whether it’s working out, conditioning, practicing,” Northwestern hybrid back Cameron Green told reporters this week. “He always knows we can be one step better, and he believes in us, which is key to everything.”

The Wildcats have given Fitzgerald reason to believe over the years, even in rare games when they’ve met Ohio State.

The Buckeyes entered Saturday’s game having enjoyed a 61-14-1 series edge over Northwestern, including a 30-1 mark since 1971. But the two previous meetings since Urban Meyer took over as OSU coach have been nail-biters, Ohio State winning 40-30 in 2013 and 24-20 in 2016.

On Oct. 5, 2013, in Meyer’s second season, the Buckeyes brought a 17-game winning streak into a prime-time game in Evanston against the undefeated Wildcats but didn’t take the lead for good until Carlos Hyde’s 7-yard touchdown run made it 34-30 with 5:22 remaining. Ohio State added a last-play TD on Joey Bosa’s fumble recovery in the end zone.

Three years later in Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes entered as 26-point favorites but struggled in a 24-20 victory. Trailing 24-17, Northwestern had a first-and-goal at the OSU 3-yard line but had to settle for a field goal with 3:31 left. Ohio State then ran out the clock to escape with a win.

“If you play us, it’s going to be a battle,” Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike said afterward. “There’s no walking over us without a scratch.”

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