COLUMBUS, Ohio — The sequence that saved Ohio State’s season started with a hold.
Facing a third-and-goal from the Ohio State 5-yard line, down by 7 with less than 4 minutes to play on Saturday, Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson dropped back to pass. Left tackle Blake Hance was bulldozed by Buckeyes DE Sam Hubbard and had no choice but to hold him.
The officials noticed.
The exact moment Sam Hubbard drew the hold that saved Ohio State's season. Pat Fitzgerald said he would have gone for it on 4-G from the 5. pic.twitter.com/GrIW1ft6mT
— Ryan Ginn (@rmginn) October 30, 2016
The pass fell incomplete, leaving a fourth and 5. Ohio State, however, took the penalty instead of declining it. That turned out to be a wise move because Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game he would have gone for it on that fourth-down play. Instead, the Wildcats threw another incompletion on the replay of third down from the 15 and settled for a field goal. The Buckeyes’ lead shrunk from seven to four.
“I feel like if we get points there, we’re going to get a stop,” Fitzgerald said.
Who could blame him? With 3:31 left to play, Ohio State’s offense hadn’t given him any reason to think he wouldn’t get the ball back. The Buckeyes’ last six possessions had ended thusly: Punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, touchdown. After the field goal, a hold and then Northwestern touchdown would mean a Wildcats win instead of overtime.
Ohio State looked well on its way to proving Fitzgerald right at the start of the drive. Opening at his own 25, OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett threw an incompletion on first down and ran for 2 yards on second. Between the incompletion and timeout after second down, only 11 seconds had run off the clock and OSU faced third and 8.
But Barrett steadied himself in the timeout and found Noah Brown for a 16-yard gain after the sophomore wide receiver put a beautiful move on CB Montre Hartage.
After a run for no gain and an incompletion on second down, Barrett again faced a high-leverage situation on third and 10. The moment was made even more tense than usual. Pass interference on Brown had gone uncalled on the second down play, and fans and coaches were raging at officials.
What happened next saved the season. With Brown lined up on the right side and three more receivers on the left, Barrett emptied the backfield right before the snap by sending H-back Curtis Samuel to his left.
He found a hole up the middle, and Brown laid a huge block on safety Godwin Igwebuike to free Barrett for a huge gain. By the time he slid down near the sideline to keep the clock running, he’d gone 35 yards.
“We had a good block, I can’t remember who it was,” Barrett said. “The receiver in the boundary did a good job cracking on the safety and I was able to get out into the open field.”
Fitzgerald saw the same thing.
“They emptied the backfield, and it didn’t look like we made any communication that it was empty,” he said. “We looked like we were velcroed to blocks. They cracked our safety and our corner fell down. That was my vantage point without seeing the film.
“Pretty tough when you don’t touch his flag until 35 yards.”
Ohio State ran out the clock from there. A 24-20 win, a rebound from the Buckeyes’ first loss a week earlier, and remaining a game behind Michigan in the Big Ten East. As a result, Ohio State (7-1, 4-1) saved its season from what would have been a disaster.