EVANSTON, Ill. – The delicately phrased questions for and about Carlos Hyde referred to "what he's been through." As if it were an injury or some other episode of karmic misfortune that kept the Ohio State running back off the field for the first three games of 2013.
What he'd been through was not the result of bad luck. It was the result of bad behavior. He served a suspension for allegedly slapping a woman at a nightclub during the summer.
The moment that might have saved the Buckeyes' season came in late July, when the woman declined to press charges against Hyde.
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That helped make a three-game suspension more reasonable. There would be no dismissal, no season-long benching. He could sit out low-stress victories over Buffalo, San Diego State and California, then be good to go as the schedule got tougher in late September.
Carlos Hyde would ride again – and Saturday night, Ohio State rode him for all he was worth in rallying to beat Northwestern, 40-30. The 230-pound Hyde pummeled the Wildcats for 206 yards rushing and receiving and three touchdowns. On a wet and wild night in Evanston, when leading rusher Jordan Hall sat out with a knee injury, it's very likely that the Buckeyes' 17-game winning streak would not have reached 18 without Hyde.
While Hyde's career effort was not exactly the feel-good story of the year in college football, it did yield an emotional postgame scene. Still wearing his pads and grass-stained white jersey, the senior from Florida stood at a podium in a cramped interview room and cried.
He said a few words. He paused. He rubbed his eyes. He sighed and tried again. Tears took over.
"The suspension," Hyde said, then halted for a long time. "The suspension, it really hurt not being out there, being out there with my brothers. Because I made a mistake.
"The suspension was hard, one of the hardest things I've ever gone through. But I prayed every night for God to be there with me."
In his first action of the year, Hyde had 41 yards on five carries in a farcical blowout of Florida A&M. In the Buckeyes' first test of the year, last week against Wisconsin, he went for 85 yards on 17 carries. And Saturday night he produced 168 rushing yards on 26 carries to help Ohio State stave off the upset.
"I wanted it bad," Hyde said.
The Buckeyes needed it from him every bit as badly as he wanted to give it. They trailed for the first time this season, and were behind for more than half the game – including a 10-point deficit in the third quarter. Quarterback Braxton Miller committed three turnovers, and the Ohio State secondary was exploited frequently by the Northwestern QB combo platter of Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter.
But the Buckeyes pass rush stopped three Wildcats drives short of the end zone, holding them to field goals when touchdowns might have made the difference. And then Hyde got busy running through tackles and dragging defenders for extra yardage.
His touchdown with 5:22 left provided the winning points, although the victory wasn't secure until Colter fumbled a snap and then failed to advance it on fourth-and-1 from the Ohio State 34 with less than three minutes to play. That was the cost of a spread team trying to go under center instead of from the shotgun, and it ended a dramatic game on an anticlimactic note.
The final score was produced when a Northwestern lateral play turned into an Ohio State defensive touchdown with no time left. While that was hugely significant for the gamblers – the Buckeyes were favored by a touchdown – it doesn't alter the takeaway from this game.
Ohio State has trudged through its two hardest games between last year and Nov. 30, holding off Wisconsin and rallying past Northwestern. If it weren't for preseason polls and brand recognition, the Buckeyes would be nowhere near No. 3 in the USA Today coaches poll. The only ranked team they've played was the No. 16 Wildcats.
But who is going to beat the Bucks? The next five opponents are Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana – a combined 14-12 overall, 2-4 in the Big Ten, and none among the top five teams in the league.
It would be an absolute shock if Ohio State isn't 11-0 heading to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team that also is undefeated and underwhelming. That might be followed by a rematch a week later in the Big Ten championship game.
It is virtually assured that the Big Ten champion will have navigated an easier road than the champion of the SEC, Pac-12 or ACC. Perhaps easier than the Big 12 champ, too. At 13-0, Ohio State would be in no position to win a beauty contest with 13-0 Alabama, Oregon/Stanford or Florida State/Clemson. A 12-0 Baylor or Oklahoma would theoretically have an argument over the Buckeyes, too.
And undefeated Ohio State might not even win a beauty contest with once-beaten winners of the SEC or Pac-12, either.
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So while the Buckeyes are piling up victories against middling competition over the next seven weeks, they likely will need some coast-to-coast help to get into the BCS championship game. History says that help is likely to come, since unbeatens have a way of weeding themselves out.
If the stars align and Ohio State is 13-0 and in the top two and playing for the title in January, remember this night in Evanston. The night Hyde ran through Northwestern to save the Buckeyes.
"He's a good kid," Miller said of Hyde. "He's a great player, too. He's a great guy, man."
Reasonable people can question two-thirds of Miller's above assessment. But nobody who saw Carlos Hyde run Saturday night would debate the player part. And for many Ohio State fans, the middle sentence is all that matters.