EVANSTON, Ill. -- The first thing he did was thank the media, and then the fans, especially the fans, the ones who helped create an atmosphere unseen around these parts since he was the one out on Ryan Field making hits some 18 years ago.
And then Pat Fitzgerald offered a bit of an apology.
"Our students were absolutely amazing. I think they started their day at about 2 in the morning, and we're sorry we didn't finish the job for them and give them a great homecoming," said Fitzgerald, the eighth-year Northwestern coach and former Wildcats linebacker. "But unbelievable, the amount of support that we've received from our students. Unbelievable homecoming setting. Incredibly thankful for that."
This town proved itself to be more than worthy of all of the national attention that was washed upon it this past week, from the "College GameDay" circus to the announced crowd of 47,330 in attendance for the prime-time kickoff. Fans and alumni from both Ohio State and Northwestern flooded the L-trains coming from the city and helped give some validation to the moniker of "Chicago's Big Ten Team." Tailgaters weathered late-afternoon thunderstorms that threatened to end this party a few hours too soon.
Then the No. 16 Wildcats gave the natives plenty to cheer about, going blow-for-blow with the No. 4 Buckeyes before falling by a 40-30 final that gave little indication of just how tight the preceding 60 minutes had been.
"Our players went out there with the right attitude," said linebacker Damien Proby, who was responsible for the third of Braxton Miller's three turnovers when he forced a fumble in the third quarter. "We didn't play this game or approach this game for the media; we played this for ourselves, and we wanted to prove something to ourselves. And that's something that we still need to do, but we definitely took a step in that direction like we wanted to."
Northwestern took a 20-13 lead into halftime on the back of an opportunistic defense that forced two Miller turnovers and saw quarterback Kain Colter score two different times without throwing the ball -- once on a 9-yard third-down strike from co-signal-caller Trevor Siemian, later on a 2-yard rush. Ohio State's only touchdown through 41-plus minutes came on a blocked punt in the end zone, courtesy of cornerback Bradley Roby.
Juggling quarterbacks like they usually do, the Wildcats' biggest crime for much of the game was stalling in the red zone, settling for three short Jeff Budzien field goals that gave them a 10-point lead in the third quarter.
Carlos Hyde was too much, though, as the Buckeyes went back to the basics and relied on the 6-foot, 235-pound bull to barrel his way to the tune of 168 rushing yards and 38 more receiving yards. Hyde reached the end zone three times in the second half, the middle of which, with 11:29 left in the game, was ruled a score after review, giving Ohio State a 27-23 lead. It had come after Northwestern's only turnover of the game, a Siemian pass picked off by Doran Grant.
Siemian finished 13-of-18 for 245 yards with two touchdowns, keeping a number of plays alive with his feet. Colter was 12-for-12 for 98 yards.
Both benefited greatly form the return of Venric Mark, who tallied 103 total yards in his first extended action of the season.
"There were definitely plays down the stretch that we could've made, and it could've been a different outcome," said end Tyler Scott, who notched one sack and had forced and recovered Miller's first fumble, setting up Northwestern's first score. "It was third-and- at the goal line and Hyde sticks the ball out, and if we got a stop, they might've been kicking a field goal and it might've been a different game, but we've just got to look at the film, see where we can improve."
Both teams exchanged touchdowns on the next two drives, before Colter bobbled a fourth-and-1 snap at the Ohio State 34 with less than three minutes to play, diving on it and falling just short of the first down on a play that was upheld after Fitzgerald's challenge.
Northwestern got the ball back with 21 seconds left, and a Joey Bosa recovery in the end zone of a failed lateral attempt provided window-dressing for the Buckeyes as the horn sounded and Urban Meyer improved to 18-0 as Ohio State's coach.
Said Fitzgerald: "There's a team getting on the bus going back to Columbus that knows it just got into a fight with a pretty darn good football team."
Good enough, it would seem, to potentially get another shot at these Buckeyes in two months.
Asked about the potential of a rematch in the Big Ten title game, Fitzgerald said "it would be a great problem."
Echoed Proby: "That's a good problem to have as a program."
Different problems for a different program, one that felt the need to seek forgiveness for not punctuating an exhilarating day with a historic win.