The season hasn’t gone as planned for the Northwestern football team.

Last year, the Wildcats shook off a 1-3 start and won the Big Ten West for the first time, going 8-0 in conference play. They lost 45-24 to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

Ohio State has kept on winning this season, starting 6-0 and outscoring opponents by an average of more than 40 points per game heading into Friday’s game at Northwestern.

 

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The Wildcats (1-4), meanwhile, sit last in the Big Ten West with an 0-3 conference record. They are scoring 14.4 points per game, ranking 128th among 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Northwestern’s defense, though, is one of the best in the country. It ranks among the top 30 nationally in yards allowed (318.8 per game) and scoring (19.8 points per game).

That defense will face its biggest test of the season, however, when Ohio State and its explosive offense travel to Ryan Field.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the key to stopping the Buckeyes is shutting down quarterback Justin Fields.

 

 

 

“He’s playing outstanding football,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s doing a great job playing in the framework of what coach (Ryan) Day wants him to do. He’s taken it to the next level.”

If the Wildcats manage to contain Fields, chances are Joe Gaziano will have a role. The senior defensive end, who has 3½ sacks and two forced fumbles this season, knows he’ll have to change his game because of Fields.

“He creates an extra threat for us as defensive linemen to be more disciplined in our rush lanes,” he said. “(We can’t) let him step up and escape.”

Fields’ speed will also challenge Northwestern’s linebackers, led by Chris Bergin (38 tackles), Paddy Fisher (37 tackles, one interception) and Blake Gallagher (33 tackles).

That unit is arguably the strength of the Wildcats defense, in part because of how quickly they can move into opponents’ backfields. Their game plan could change Friday, however, as one or more could end up dropping back to spy on Fields.

“You need to take his legs into account,” Gallagher said. “He’s a dual-threat guy who can scramble around and escape the pocket. We need to be cautious of that.”

Despite all the talent on Ohio State’s offense, Gallagher feels up to the challenge.

“We have our plan,” he said. “We’re looking forward to playing them.”

 

hpalattella@dispatch.com

@hellapalattella