Just when it looked like sixth-ranked Ohio State might be in danger of a second straight loss, the Buckeyes' offense and defense came through with the game -- and possibly the season -- teetering on the brink of doom.
Curtis Samuel scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 3-yard run with 9:43 left, the defense made a stand inside the 5-yard line to hold Northwestern to a field goal with 3:31 to go, and the offense then ran out the clock to give the Buckeyes a hard-fought 24-20 win on Saturday at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
"We're kind of a dogfight team, I guess," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "That's fine. It builds a little character, I guess. Ages your coach, builds character for your players."
Coming off a loss the previous week at Penn State, Ohio State (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) avoided a second straight upset with just enough offense and defense to repel Northwestern. The Buckeyes remained one game behind front-running Michigan in the Big Ten East Division with a game looming next week at home against No. 7 Nebraska.
Northwestern (4-4, 3-2) came back after Samuel's touchdown, which was set up by a 34-yard pass from J.T. Barrett to K.J. Hill, with a 16-play, 60-yard drive but couldn't get the ball into the end zone against Ohio State's defense. The Wildcats opted to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Jack Mitchell with 3:31 left.
"It was a long fourth-and-goal," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "But I had three options, either I go for it and don't get it, kick a field goal, or go for it and score a touchdown. I chose the decision in the middle."
Barrett put the game away from there with two big third-down conversions on what proved to be the final drive -- a 16-yard pass to Noah Brown on third-and-8 and a 35-yard run on third-and-10 with 1:57 left to put the ball at the Northwestern 22-yard line. From there, the Buckeyes ran out the clock.
"We had two chances to get stops on long third downs and we didn't get it done," Fitzgerald said. "That's on us as a coaching staff."
Barrett made big plays when Ohio State needed them, especially in the fourth quarter. He ended the game with 71 yards rushing on 13 carries and completed 21 of 32 passes for 223 yards.
Mike Weber rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, and the Buckeyes finished with 431 yards and no turnovers after a sluggish offensive performance last week in the 24-21 loss at Penn State.
"We try to be a 500-yard offense or close to that. We're getting closer to doing that," Barrett said. "If we're close to doing that, I don't think there's a lot of regress."
The Wildcats had tied the score at 17 with 3:49 left in the third quarter on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Garrett Dickerson. Northwestern converted a fourth-and-2 from the Ohio State 46-yard line to keep the drive alive and Thorson connected with Austin Carr on a 35-yard pass for a first-and-goal at the 5.
Thorson completed 22 of 42 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a score to help Northwestern's offense accumulate 406 total yards. Carr, the Big Ten's leading receiver, had eight catches for 158 yards.
"Well, we would have liked to win obviously," Thorson said, "but there are no moral victories. We felt like we should have won, but we didn't make one play here and there. ... No one cares how close you come to winning."
Ohio State scored a touchdown on its first possession for the first time this season, marching 94 yards in nine plays. Weber capped the long drive with a 1-yard plunge to give the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead.
Northwestern gave the ball right back to Ohio State when Thorson's pass was tipped by linebacker Raekwon McMillan and intercepted by cornerback Damon Arnette at the Buckeyes' 49-yard line.
Ohio State's short drive stalled and Tyler Durbin kicked a 35-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead with 6:36 left in the opening quarter.
"I like the fact we started fast," Meyer said.
NOTES: S Malik Hooker led the Buckeyes with a career-high 14 tackles. ... Ohio State WR Parris Campbell left the game in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. ... Ohio State's defense gave up only its third rushing touchdown of the season, a 1-yard run by Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson in the second quarter. ... Northwestern last won in Columbus in 1971, a 14-10 victory. The Wildcats' only win in the series since then came in 2004 in Evanston, Ill., a 33-27 victory in overtime.