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Film Room: Northwestern’s rugged run defense

Despite the lack of results in recent weeks, one aspect of the team has gone back to being rock solid.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, Inside NU Film Room will allow one of our writers to dive into the highlights from Northwestern’s past games or future opponents in order to give you the quality analysis you need heading into the following week. This time, we take a look at the unit of Northwestern’s defense that has anchored the team of late.

There has been a lot of negativity regarding this NU team, and rightly so, but while Northwestern’s offense has not allowed the ‘Cats to win games, the defense, especially against the run, has done everything in its power to help the team.

NU limited a Nebraska offense that averages 4.4 yards per carry to 3.3 last Saturday, and if it wasn’t for a 42 yard carry from Wan’dale Robinson, that number would’ve been 2.2.

Against Wisconsin two weeks ago, a vaunted run offense led by Jonathan Taylor and averaging 5.4 yards per carry was limited to an anemic 3.6.

Out of the gates this season, and especially against UNLV and Michigan State, the Wildcat front that had so thoroughly controlled the line of scrimmage in 2018 was showing its losses a little bit. Thanks to a few missed tackles and some uneven play across the group, running backs occasionally got away to break off big runs, and the rush defense was seemingly starting to fade as a significant strength.

But across the last two weeks, that group has redoubled their efforts, and that hard work has certainly created some results, if not of the win-loss variety they were looking for. But what has allowed for such a sharp turnaround?

Dominating the interior

It all comes down to the work Northwestern has done in the middle.

Facing a talented offensive line in Wisconsin, there were moments when NU defensive linemen were able to overpower their Badger counterparts. Just take a look at this effort from Trevor Kent to get by the offensive lineman and bring down Taylor. It’s a true one on one battle that the defensive tackle wins by a large margin.

But denying the inside rush is a group effort. Notice on this play how defensive end Joe Gaziano crashes the middle and blows up the run. He’s getting blocked on the play by a tight end, and the big defensive end is able to take advantage of the mismatch and bring down the rusher behind the line of scrimmage.

Samdup Miller, the main defensive end on the the other side of the field, has had a similar impact vis-a-vis Gaziano. On a critical third-and-four, Nebraska tried to run a direct snap to the running back in an effort to catch NU off guard. Just as Gaziano was on the other play, Miller is blocked by a tight end, allowing him to take advantage of the mismatch, blow the blocker backwards, and stuff the run.

The effort to limit Nebraska’s inside run game extended to the next level. Northwestern’s linebackers are attacking the ball at an impressive level, and Paddy Fisher in particular has elevated his game midway into the season. WIth NU needing a late stop, the Texan was able to make his presence felt.

Early in the season, the Wildcats simply weren’t winning the one-on-one battles they needed to take care of in order to stop the run at the point of attack. But over the last two weeks, the interior defense has taken care of any mismatch they can find, even if it isn’t one that would traditionally seem useful for stopping an inside run.

With every member of the front seven doing their jobs, and tackling improving across the board, any explosive get-off or good read from an unblocked linebacker thanks to occupying blocks up front allows the group to bring down backs immediately. This is what the team was doing so well in 2018, and even with some new personnel in the mix, Mike Hankwitz’s group is back on the same grind.

There is no doubt that Northwestern’s early 1-4 record should be viewed as a disappointment, but, despite some early missteps, that tally is in no way due to a run defense that has done its part. The same can be said for the passing defense, and we’ll have more on that next week.

For now, enjoy the slate of college football that is upon us this bye week.