Northwestern hopes to remain on the upswing

The Wildcats have been on one wild ride the past three seasons, from winning the Big Ten West to finishing last to winning the division again this season.

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Northwestern players and coaches celebrate after defeating Illinois.

Northwestern players and coaches celebrate after defeating Illinois.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Pat Fitzgerald figures he will gain a few more gray hairs by the time No. 15 Northwestern steps on the field to face third-ranked Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday.

As the Wildcats’ coach, it’s his job to figure out a way to contain the Buckeyes. And with Justin Fields leading their high-powered offense, well, good luck with that.

Then again, if Northwestern succeeds?

“Not gonna lie to you, it would be a helluva ride home on I-65,” Fitzgerald said.

The Wildcats (6-1) have been on one wild ride the past three seasons, from winning the Big Ten West to finishing last to winning the division again this season.

They’re set to meet Ohio State (5-0) in the conference championship game for the second time in three years, with their sights set on an upset few outside their lakefront practice facility can envision. But if they pull it off, that would be quite an accomplishment.

After all, they went 3-9 last season, matching their worst record since 2002, and finishing 1-8 in conference play.

“We always knew we had all the pieces,” linebacker Blake Gallagher said. “We just needed to put them together and come out and really jell and mesh together.”

Peyton Ramsey noticed it coming together soon after practices began. A graduate transfer from Indiana, he liked the way the offense under new coordinator Mike Bajakian was performing. And he saw big potential in the defense.

“We started to get more confident (on offense),” Ramsey said. “And knowing that we had a good defense, I think early on in our fall camp I think I knew that we had a chance to be pretty special. We kind of just continued to get better.”

The defense, among the stingiest in the nation, is a big reason for the turnaround. Only Marshall is giving up fewer per game than the Wildcats, who are holding opponents to a league-low 14.6 points on average.

That defense will be tested in a big way by Fields and the Buckeyes. Ohio State ranks fourth in the nation in points per game (46.6) and sixth in yards (532.4).

Another big reason for the turnaround is the stability Ramsey gives them behind center. With six interceptions, he has cut back on the mistakes that hurt the Wildcats last season. They were picked off 15 times a year ago, and the offense ranked among the worst in the country.

“Last year, we had some issues at certain positions where we didn’t play or coach as well as we needed to,” Fitzgerald said. “But we still were in a bunch of games that we had every opportunity to win. But we just didn’t play the way we typically do from a consistency standpoint.”

The Wildcats have produced winning teams on a consistent basis for the past 25 years, going back to when Fitzgerald was a star linebacker under Gary Barnett. He was part of the 1995 team that captured the nation’s imagination with a Rose Bowl run that ended a string of 23 losing seasons, a stretch where they went winless four times.

Since Fitzgerald took over in 2006 following Randy Walker’s unexpected death, the Wildcats have nine bowl appearances and three 10-win seasons. With a 105-80 record, their coach is by far Northwestern’s winningest.

Yet, the Wildcats are still fighting for respect, often seen as a good team that can’t quite beat the Big Ten’s best. A few weeks ago, ESPN analyst and former Ohio State star Joey Galloway told host Rece Davis they have “a bunch of Rece Davises out there running around.”

A few days later, Northwestern beat then-No. 10 Wisconsin 17-7. That gave the Wildcats their first victory over a top 10 team since 2011 and put them in control of the division.

Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler also took some shots leading up to last week’s game, saying the Illini would get to “beat up on our little brothers.” Northwestern rolled to a 28-10 victory.

“Gosh, it’s great for blogs and it’s gotta be unbelievable for Twitter,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, what great stuff, right?”

Northwestern now has a shot — maybe a long one — to change the narrative. But it obviously won’t be easy. Northwestern has lost eight in a row and 32 of 33 against Ohio State. The lone win in that span was at home in 2004.

The Buckeyes pulled away for a 45-24 victory in the conference title game in 2018 behind five touchdown passes by Dwayne Haskins. And they blew out the Wildcats 52-3 last year in Evanston with Fields throwing for four scores.

This time?

“Our expectations now are to win the Big Ten championship,” receiver Riley Lees said.

Big Ten championship game

No. 15 Northwestern (6-1 Big Ten, No. 14 CFP) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (5-0, No. 4 CFP) Saturday at 11 a.m. (Fox-32).

Line: Ohio State by 20 1/2.

Series record: Ohio State leads 63-14-1.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Ohio State is seeking a school record fourth consecutive outright Big Ten title but also hopes to burnish its resume for the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes have held the fourth and final CFP spot for weeks, but a standout showing Saturday might eliminate any argument that another team deserves a CFP berth. For the second time in three years, Northwestern heads to Indianapolis in search of its a conference crown. The Wildcats haven’t won a title since 2000 and haven’t won an outright title since 1995. A win would be the third outright Big Ten championship in school history.

KEY MATCHUP

Ohio State QB Justin Fields vs. Northwestern secondary. Fields is completing nearly 80% of his throws with 15 touchdown passes and three interceptions. He had his poorest performance this season against Indiana, which ranks eighth in the conference against the pass. Northwestern’s defense is ranked in the top five against the pass, run, overall and scoring defense. The defense also is experienced and is the only Power Five team with three players with more than 200 career tackles.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Northwestern LB Paddy Fisher. He leads all active FBS players with 383 career tackles and 11 forced fumbles. Fisher and the Wildcats other linebackers — Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin — are all in the Big Ten’s top 11 in tackles per game. Fisher has been the glue of this defense for years and it’s a good bet he hasn’t forgotten how Ohio State pulled away for a 45-24 victory to claim the 2018 title.

Ohio State WRs Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. While Fields generates Heisman Trophy talk, Olave and Wilson make it all possible. Both are fast and athletic, capable of making acrobatic catches. Olave has 36 receptions for 528 yards while Wilson has 34 catches for 572 yards. Each has five TD receptions.

FACTS & FIGURES

Northwestern allows a league-low 14.6 points per game including 4.1 in the second half. ... Ohio State has played just one game since Nov. 21. ... The Wildcats have come from behind in five wins this season and have won three games by eight or fewer points. ... The Buckeyes have won four games by double digits and three by more than 20 points. They have won eight straight in this series. ... Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is in his 51st season as a coach and has been part of 399 wins during his career. ... Fields (71) and Northwestern QB Peyton Ramsey (67), a grad transfer from Indiana, have accounted for the two highest touchdown totals among active Big Ten players. ... Northwestern DE Eku Leota has four sacks in the last six games despite coming off the bench.

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