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Like it has all season, Northwestern’s defense came through when it mattered most against Illinois

Clutch defense is nothing new for the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

With the score at 24-9 Northwestern, TJ Green entered the game to replace Clayton Thorson. Isaiah Bowser hadn’t entered the game since the third quarter, and Pat Fitzgerald had effectively conceded the Northwestern offense for the day, in hopes of keeping its premier players healthy.

The reason Northwestern was up 15 in the first place is due to its “bend don’t break defense.” On Illinois’ three previous trips to the red zone, the Illini had to settle for three field goals. This isn’t a new style for the Northwestern defense; they’ve held their opponents to a field goal attempt or less on 55 percent of their attempts in the red zone. It’s a large part of Northwestern’s defensive success.

Yet, after Northwestern’s offense quickly gave the ball back to Illinois, this time the Illini were able to get the ball into the endzone, bringing the team within a score. A TJ Green-led Northwestern offense was not going to move the ball, so it became the defense’s responsibility to end the game.

With 6:04 remaining in the contest, lowly Illinois had a chance to tie the game. With the potential for a season-defining win on the line, hopes were high for the Illini. With 3:44 remaining, Paddy Fisher ended those hopes with an interception inside the red zone.

“They ran an RPO, they were hitting it all game,” Fisher said, “I just read the quarterback’s eyes and got my hand on the ball.”

Making a big play in a timely manner is nothing new for the Northwestern defense this year. Against Michigan State, the defensive line stuffed Connor Heyward on a fourth-and-one with three minutes remaining to end the game. Against Iowa, two timely forced fumbles clinched the Big Ten West title.

When the Northwestern defense has been called upon this season, it has consistently answered. Further, it has just been a consistent unit this season, one that has compensated for an erratic offense. Allowing only 132 yards per game, its run defense in particular has allowed the team to manage the game and force offenses to pass the ball.

“Look at those guys up front,” Blake Gallagher said, “they’re all monsters up there, they’ve been dominating the line of scrimmage all year, they’re grown men. It makes our job a lot easier.”

With the Big Ten Championship approaching, Northwestern’s defense will be in for its biggest test of the season by a wide margin. Ohio State boasts a prolific offense that has put up gaudy numbers this season. With 546 yards and 42 points per game, it will take a truly great effort from the defense to keep Northwestern in the game, but don’t tell that to Pat Fitzgerald.

“A lot of people are going to say we have no chance,” he said. “We’ll take the purple to Indy and hopefully we’ll compete and I expect that they will. We’ve got a chance to get this team to the Rose Bowl and if that doesn’t fire you up I don’t know what does.”

Competition has been a consistent theme of this year’s team, both negatively and positively. Northwestern hasn’t won a game by more than 14 points all year, but they also haven’t dropped a game by more than 14. It’s in NU’s nature to play up to its superior opponents and down to its inferior competition. If that trend is to continue next Saturday, it all starts with the defense, as Blake Gallagher knows it.

“I’m looking forward to it.”