Wherever you choose to pin blame for Northwestern’s back-to-back losses against Penn State and Wisconsin, don’t choose the defense.
In both matchups, the Wildcats have held their top-ten opponents under its season averages for points and yards. Penn State and Wisconsin scoring over 30 points is more of a reflection of the Wildcat offense’s inability to stay on the field as opposed to the defense’s ability to make stops. It’s safe to say Northwestern’s defense has put the team in a position to win both games.
Linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall have been instrumental to the relative success of the defense, combining for 28 tackles over the past two weeks. Hall is more of a known entity, finishing third on the team in tackles last year. The junior was named to Pro Football Focus’s All-Big Ten team following his nine-tackle performance against Penn State.
PFF Week 6 - B1G Team of the Week - Defense pic.twitter.com/4YnnyNPgJL— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 10, 2017
Fisher, a redshirt freshman, leads the team in tackles five games into his college career. Let’s take a look at some game tape to see where this duo has been effective these past two weeks.
Hall and Fisher have impressive instincts and tackling skill
You don’t get to be a starting linebacker in the Big Ten without great anticipation and strong fundamentals. Against two of the top running backs Northwestern will face this season, Hall and Fisher missed only a handful of tackles. Wisconsin and Penn State combined for 204 yards on 75 carries (2.72 yards per rush).
Solid anticipation is on display during this third quarter play against Penn State. Both Hall and Fisher immediately see Saquon Barkley setting up for a screen from Trace McSorley.
Fisher makes a beeline for Barkley in the backfield to string the play out toward the sideline. Meanwhile, Hall quickly sheds his block and runs down Barkley. The Heisman candidate has nowhere to go and gains maybe a yard.
Against a running back like Barkley, wrapping up at first contact is crucial. Barkley earns his legitimacy by making arm tacklers miss and then turning on the afterburners. Save for one long touchdown that was assisted by a referee taking out Igwebuike, Northwestern did a great job of neutralizing Barkley. Penn State turns to its star running back on this first-and-goal play from inside the Northwestern five.
Fisher does a great job of anticipating where Barkley will try to run. He wraps up and drops Barkley in the backfield for a loss. Talk about hitting them hard and hitting them low.
A third-year player, Hall show strong instinct early in the game on Penn State’s first drive. On a crucial fourth down, McSorley stepped up in the pocket.
No slouch with his legs, McSorley is not easy to chase down. Hall takes a great angle and drags the junior down well short of the first down line in what was a big play early in the game.
Nate Hall is really, really strong
Okay, it’s not a super analytical sub-head, but Hall’s power jumps out at you on the game tape. During the second quarter against Wisconsin, Jonathan Taylor, listed at 214 pounds, takes a handoff on a second-and-five. He slips through an arm tackle from Fisher before running into Hall, who completely stands up him.
Stopping a running back’s momentum from a near-standstill is not easy to do. Nate Hall drives Taylor backwards relatively quickly.
Against Penn State, Hall slips around a blocker, who tries to restrain Hall from getting into the backfield. Not to be deterred, Hall fights through the illegal contact to wrap up Barkley by the legs before Northwestern’s defensive line finishes him off.
Finally, this might be my favorite play from the duo. Hall sheds not one, but two blocks from tight ends who are heavier and taller than him. His initial burst puts the first blocker in the backfield, and Hall is able to string the reverse out to the sideline.
Keep an eye on Fisher on this play too. Immediately recognizing the misdirection, he uses a swim move to evade an offensive lineman, then finishes off the tackle and rips out the ball in one motion.
There is always room for improvement
Mistakes happen over the course of football games and it would be unfair to suggest Hall and Fisher have played perfectly the past two weeks. One of Saquon Barkley’s longer non-touchdown runs on Saturday came after Barkley expertly cut back when Hall lost contain on the edge.
It’s hard to find Hall completely at fault here because he is blocked well by Brandon Polk, but in an ideal world, Hall would angle himself on the other side of the block to force Barkley back to the middle of the field, where help awaits.
Fisher and Hall also miscommunicated on a third down late in the first quarter. Anticipating a blitz, Penn State only sends out four receivers with eleven yards to gain. Only one of them, DaeSean Hamilton, runs an underneath pattern in the zone covered by Hall and Fox.
As Hamilton crosses Hall’s face, McSorley rolls out right. Perhaps anticipating another McSorley scramble, it looks like Fisher gestures for Hall to stay on Hamilton as he runs towards the sideline. Hall, however, stays in no-man’s land as Fisher charges McSorley. The result is a dump-off and an easy first down. Given how Hall and Fisher have played this season, Northwestern can live with a mistake or two like that.
Following his ejection for targeting in the third quarter against Penn State, Northwestern will miss Fisher for the first half of the Maryland game. Yet only five games into his college career, Fisher has shown the physical and mental maturity that portends a successful couple of seasons at the MIKE spot. Paired with a more experienced Hall, Northwestern’s linebackers look like a strength on defense, even if their depth consists of true freshman Blake Gallagher. Perhaps two of Northwestern’s three top defenders thus far, Fisher and Hall will be called on to make more and more plays as the schedule eases up in the second half of the season.