EVANSTON, Ill. – This needed to be a signature moment for Ohio State. It needed to be impressive, and to feel good. And if the Buckeyes wanted to be in the national championship race, they needed Northwestern to look like a national power, not the little guy playing over his head.
Ohio State had a Saturday night national TV audience, a ranked opponent, a road game. And it won 40-30 after scoring a touchdown on defense on the final goofy play.
But here's the truth: This isn't going to be enough. It never quite felt like the moment it could have been. The Big Ten looks like a second-rung league, and Ohio State?
It looks like the Louisville of the Big Ten.
If there was a hero of the night, it was running back Carlos Hyde and even he left you with mixed feelings. His tears afterward were just so hard to interpret. He is trying to redeem himself following a three-game suspension.
"That suspension, it really hurt,'' he said. "Not being out there with my brothers cause of the mistake I made. . .
"I kept with my faith. I prayed every night He would be there for me.''
Sitting there not 10 feet from Hyde, who was openly weeping when he said that, I'm not sure, honestly, that I felt for the young man struggling with what he had done. You don't want to forget the YouTube video in a club, where he and a woman were arguing, and she swung at him, and he stepped back in and slapped her.
He ran for 168 yards and three touchdowns Saturday night, and Ohio State fans -- men and women -- were high-fiving him as he left the field.
Cheering him. That shouldn't matter to the national title race, but here was a guy beloved again already in public. If the woman hadn't dropped the charges, he probably wouldn't have even been playing.
Meanwhile, quarterback Braxton Miller, who told me before the season that he wanted to win the Heisman Trophy, looked mediocre. In the first half, he was carrying the ball loosely and fumbled. He missed an open receiver in the end zone by at least 10 feet.
And there was Ohio State coach Urban Meyer oddly calling a fake punt in the second quarter.
"The head coach and the offense put the defense in some bad positions,'' Meyer said. "That was an error by me.''
In the second half, Ohio State finally realized how much bigger and stronger it was than Northwestern. So it rammed the ball up the middle, and while Miller fumbled again when he was about to score, it didn't matter.
Northwestern's defense wore down.
Northwestern looked like a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament playing valiantly.
"There is a perception of Northwestern that they're well-coached and don't make mistakes,'' Meyer said. "That's correct.''
He also said the Wildcats have some players who are nearly great.
That didn't help Ohio State's case. The Buckeyes have won 18 games in a row now, but they likely are going to be squeezed out of the race.
Look, Meyer has the national name to keep the Buckeyes in the national picture. He has recruited at Ohio State as if he's trying to win the BCS title, not the Big Ten. So there is speed, and his smarts, and Ohio State's traditional name. Those things are all worth points in a ranking system that includes votes.
They are the only perennial power left in the Midwest. But it's impossible to judge how good they really are.
The Big Ten just doesn't look like the major leagues.
Maybe that's not fair to Meyer. It's not his fault that the Big Ten doesn't have a signature opponent for him to beat. But it just looks like, at No. 4, Ohio State is overrated. And it has no chance to prove otherwise.
If Louisville -- which has its slight chance at a signature moment Thursday night against Rutgers -- isn't going to get a shot at the BCS title game because it's playing in the American Athletic Conference (quick: name three teams in the league. I already gave you Rutgers), then Ohio State might be headed the same way.
The Buckeyes had hoped for a signature win against Wisconsin, but the Badgers are still playing the Neanderthal Big Ten smashmouth. And there is barely a speedbump left for Ohio State. Michigan, because of the rivalry factor, might be an issue, but hasn't been special.
This game had the good-guy, bad-guy setup. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose name should pop up for any coaching job available this year, is the guy people want to like. He has built a Big Ten contender at the most unlikely place. And now Northwestern is trying to raise money for big-time facilities, too. This win would have been historic here.
Ohio State has everything Northwestern is dreaming about. But Meyer is the guy people love to hate.
On Saturday, the bully kept rolling. The tears were flowing. It just wasn't enough.