CAMPUS CHECK-IN: For Northwestern, success starts with defense in 2020

Big 10 Sports

EVANSTON, ILLINOIS – NOVEMBER 07: Brandon Joseph #16 of the Northwestern Wildcats incepts a pass in the end zone intended for Austin Allen #11 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Ryan Field on November 07, 2020 in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern defeated Nebraska 21-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

EVANSTON – Always one to turn heads with a witty or sometime funny quote during a news conference, Pat Fitzgerald saved one of his best for 2020 for his favorite side of the ball before the Wisconsin game.

“We’ve always had pretty damn good defenses in the Big Ten. I think it’s kind of the Midwest way,” said Fitzgerald when asked question about the importance of defense to his Northwestern program ahead of the Wisconsin game.

“You look at grade school and high school football now. There’s a lot of seven-on-sevens, the guys who go play in those and get their spark rating up and get all the free gear for playing seven on seven. Eventually, they get hit in the mouth.”

It’s a pride in defense that made Fitzgerald an All-American in the mid-1990s at the school and has shaped his program as a head coach. His finest unit, and perhaps the best the Wildcats have had since he was playing, might be the one he’ll put on the field for a potential jhistoric Saturday in East Lansing.

With a win over Michigan State, Northwestern would clinch the Big Ten West title since the closest team in the standings to them, Wisconsin, is already ineligible for the conference title game because they can only play five games.

The league’s limit in the pandemic-shortened season is six, so a win over the Spartans would get the job done. Like many times this year, the Wildcats may ride their defense to do it.

The unit is fourth in FBS as they’ve allowed just 12.3 points per game in five consecutive victories that have pushed them to eighth in the College Football Playoff poll. That included just seven allowed in a win over the Badgers, which is a victory that’s opened up some major possibilities for this year’s team.

“We don’t pay too much attention to the outside stuff. We knew what we had in this building and we knew if we put it all together on the field we knew we were going to have a special group,” said linebacker Blake Gallagher. “That started in spring ball. When we were able to get spring ball practice, then we all got sent home, continued to work.”

Where that’s paying off is in turnovers, where Northwestern is among the best in FBS with 16 forced in five games this year. They got 11 of those on interceptions including four of the five takeaways against Wisconsin last week, with Brandon Joseph picking off a pair of them.

That’s brought the redshirt freshman up to five on the season as he’s been one of the emerging defensive players in the conference.

“We’ve just been putting an emphasis on turnovers,” said Joseph. “After that Maryland game, I knew I was able to play college football. I got those nerves out and I was like ‘Alright, I can do this.’ Then go out Week 2, get interceptions against Iowa, I’m like ‘Alright, I guess I can still intercept the ball in college.’

“Then I go out and keep trying to do it every week.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: A REVERSE OF THE NORM

DEKALB – There isn’t much typical about the 2020 College Football season, and that’s especially true of the Mid-American Conference.

The league was the first to postpone their season in August to the spring, but like others, changed course early in the fall to play before the end of the new year. That’s forced teams to play a reduced six-game schedule in November and December.

What’s also different is when the league is playing games and what time of the year they do. Typically, Northern Illinois would play on Saturday’s primarily to start the year before playing traditional MAC weekday games late in the season.

That changes in 2020 as the Huskies will play the final three games on Saturdays after their first three games during the week. The first of those is against Western Michigan on the road this Saturday with next week’s game back in DeKalb against Toledo before finishing at Eastern Michigan on December 12th.

Perhaps that will help to change the Huskies’ luck, since the team dropped three-straight games on consecutive Wednesdays in November.

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