In 1995 and '96, the Wildcats went to the Rose Bowl and Florida Citrus Bowl in consecutive years, winning the Big Ten championship each time. The Buckeyes were not on the schedule each of those years, drubbing the Wildcats by a 49-6 score in '97 when the matchup resumed.
In 2000, Randy Walker led the Wildcats to a share of the league championship, and yet again, Northwestern did not play the Buckeyes. When they did a year later, OSU won a 38-20 final under the lights in Ohio Stadium that was not that close.
Then came the past four seasons, a stretch that has cemented Northwestern among the best programs in the Big Ten. Northwestern has made a bowl in each of those campaigns, going a combined 31-21 and winning its first bowl since 1949 last season by downing Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
And of course, because of the new Big Ten schedule that included the expansion to 12 teams in 2011, the Wildcats avoided playing Ohio State in each of those seasons.
Now 4-0 and riding a 14-3 mark the past two seasons – yes, last year's team won 10 games for just the third time in NU history – there is nowhere to hide for Northwestern. The Wildcats, ranked 15th in the coaches' poll and 16th by the Associated Press, will host the No. 4 Buckeyes in perhaps the most anticipated regular-season home game in program history. The eyes of the nation will be on Ryan Field with the game on ABC, and ESPN's "College GameDay" is in Evanston for the contest.
For the Wildcats to get where they want to go, they must now vanquish the one program they have not been able to measure themselves against when at their best – until now.
At the same time, the last four times Northwestern has lined up against the Scarlet and Gray, it hasn't been pretty. After the last time the Wildcats beat Ohio State – a 33-27 overtime upset of a top-10 Buckeye team in 2004, the only victory Northwestern has vs. OSU in the past four decades – Jim Tressel went on a "never again" crusade, leading the Buckeyes to a four-game winning streak from 2005-08 that included a combined score of 205-37 in favor of OSU.
After the last beating, a 45-10 triumph in Evanston for the Buckeyes in 2008 in which Tressel called a fourth-quarter fake punt while up by three touchdowns, the series went into hibernation, so it would be fair to wonder what Ohio State fans can expect out of the Wildcats this time around.
With that in mind, here's a "what you've been missing" look at the Wildcats going into this Saturday's contest.
Not only does head coach Pat Fitzgerald return for his eighth year as the school where he was an All-America linebacker, six of his nine assistants are still in Evanston as well, including five who are still coaching the same positions they were when Ohio State beat Northwestern in 2008.
Among them are longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who is still running the same spread offense, and defensive coordinator and safeties coach Mike Hankwitz, who still has the Wildcats in a 4-3 alignment.
"Their offensive coordinator was at Bowling Green right after I left, McCall," OSU head coach Urban Meyer said. "So I watched them play and I see they are very good, and schematically they are very good.
"Obviously the head coach is very involved in the defense. They are very sound, so 4-3 defense. Sound defenses at times give up yards because of all the chaos that we see nowadays in college football, but it's hard to score on very sound defenses because at some point, they are going to force you to make up a mistake."
One thing that is different? Fitzgerald's program is now firmly established. While he entered the 2008 season with a 10-14 career record after being thrust into a leadership role in 2006 following the sudden death of Randy Walker that summer, he is now the winningest coach in NU history at 54-39. With success have come expectations.
"We're not satisfied with just going to bowl games anymore – that's not acceptable," Fitzgerald told reporters in Chicago for the annual Big Ten Media Days. "That's the expectation. And to be a consistent winner, to be a consistent postseason team and playing in bowl games is the expectation.
"Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day the expectation is to win championships. When you walk into our team room on the right side, it would be your left, we'd say we want to win the Legends Division and win the Big Ten. We want to put that trophy in our case just like the other 11 institutions and head coaches."
Solid On The Field
Before the season, Fitzgerald came up with the slogan 5:03 for the Wildcats – a reference to the fact that the head coach believed his team was five minutes and three seconds away from being undefeated a season ago.
And he might have a point. The Wildcats blew fourth-quarter leads of more than 10 points in losses to Penn State and Nebraska, and then there was the Roy Roundtree Hail Mary that allowed Michigan to tie the Wildcats late in regulation on the way to an overtime win in the Big House.
While the Wildcats – who have pulled in just five four-star recruits according to Scout in the past five recruiting classes – generally don't blow teams off the field, Fitzgerald's targeted recruiting has brought in solid players all over the field who fit the team's culture on and off the field.
That's one reason six Northwestern's 10 wins last year were by 11 points or less, but the overall stat sheet showed the Wildcats played solid football. NU finished 29th in the FBS last year in the F/+ rankings used by SB Nation/Football Outsiders writer Bill Connelly, outscored its opponents 412-293, had almost 1,300 more rushing yards than its opposition and had a plus-14 turnover margin.
First-team All-Big Ten kicker Jeff Budzien and Venric Mark – a second-team All-Big Ten choice at running back and a first-team All-American at punt returner – return as well as honorable mention all-league choices at quarterback (Kain Colter), defensive line (Tyler Scott), linebacker (Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby) and safety (Ibraheim Campbell).
And In The Stands…
Ryan Field is traditionally one of the Big Ten venues where Ohio State fans can get a solid "O-H-I-O" going from one corner to the other, and there's still going to be plenty of scarlet in the stadium come Saturday night.
But Northwestern has increased its fanbase over the past few seasons. The team's average attendance bottomed out at 24,589 in 2007, Fitzgerald's second year, but has been above 33,000 each of the past four seasons, averaging at 34,629 thus far despite the fact the team is yet to host a conference game.
So yes, there will still be plenty of scarlet and gray in the stands come Saturday night, but there should be a lot of purple as well.
"It's been terrific," Fitzgerald said of the fan support. "The change in the climate here and the way that our fans have not only supported us here but the bowl experiences that we've had, our opening game at Berkeley, the fan support was just amazing. We're very thankful for that. Our season ticket sales are at an all-time high. We have a ton of positive momentum. We're very thankful to be Chicago's Big Ten team. The City has really embraced us.
"It's night and day (from when I started playing here), that's all I'll say."
BSB staff writer Marcus Hartman contributed to this report.