The setting was brilliantly Evanstonian. Partly cloudy and 40 degrees for an 11 a.m. Senior Day kickoff at Ryan Field.
Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano chased Casey Dailey’s program-record 28 sacks, trailing by the slimmest of margins. In a forgettable season for Northwestern and its most heralded seniors, the game wrecker has been one of the Wildcats’ lone bright spots, and he finally earned a permanent spot in the record book Saturday against Minnesota.
In the second quarter with his team trailing 21-0 to the tenth-ranked Gophers (10-1, 7-1 B1G), Gaziano got around the edge and had a free shot at quarterback Tanner Morgan. He didn’t hit the Minnesota signal caller cleanly, but he got enough of him to force him an intentional grounding in the end zone, which resulted in a safety and Gaz being credited with the record-breaking sack.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a full sack or a half sack, but after the graphic went up it was pretty obvious,” Gaziano said postgame.
NU’s defense has come under fire from its head coach this season for struggling to produce turnovers and impact plays, but the unit has registered two safeties and special teams scored a touchdown this month. Over the last three games, it has also made four interceptions.
Notably, the senior has had a hand in every one of those scoring plays. He forced the safety against Purdue, the aforementioned safety, and he blocked the field goal try against UMass that Chris Bergin returned for a touchdown.
For the Massachusetts native, the record-breaking takedown brought things full circle from his first sack in a Northwestern uniform. The then-redshirt first year pinned his ears back on a third-and-8 against Michigan State as quarterback Brian Lewerke took his drop into the front of the end zone. The result was cleaner than his registered sack this weekend as he shellacked Lewerke onto the turf for a safety.
Safeties are subjective when it comes to crediting the defender who caused it, since there are ways a safety can happen without any obvious defensive play, like snapping the ball out of the back of the end zone or holding in that area.
“I thought he had a half sack last week but the official scorer didn’t give it to him,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “They’ve changed the rules by how you do defensive stats. I would’ve been so irate if he was half a sack behind the record.”
In the NFL, there were just 10 total safeties recorded in all of 2018. It’s not often that players are able to break records in the same fashion as their first sack, especially on such a rare play. Gaziano alone accounted for three in four years.
“It’s cool that I’ve had three safeties out of all the sacks I’ve had,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to score a touchdown, but I guess I’ll settle for six points. It’s a cool moment, we got to get the clap going like we did against Purdue with the fans. It’s always a big momentum play.”
Both safeties came at opportune times for Northwestern. Gaziano’s Spartan demolition helped key a 19-0 scoring run in that game, and his most recent two points jumpstarted the nine straight points. It speaks to the type of clutch, momentum-building plays he has made during his career.
Gaz has made plenty of plays on quarterbacks, but he has also had frequent parties in the backfield with just about any variety of offensive skill player, forcing 10 fumbles and making 46.5 tackles for loss. He currently ranks second all-time in the program for TFLs.
“I’m really proud of the career he’s had,” Fitzgerald said. “[He] led us to a championship a year ago...I think he’s going to play on Sundays for a long time.
Northwestern Football’s social media account put out a hype video in the week leading up to the Ohio State game with the theme “don’t go quietly into that good night.” Though the team has largely gone quietly this season, Gaziano is leaving the same way he arrived: with force.