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Despite a second half shutout, questions linger for Northwestern’s defense

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The unit put together some outstanding individual efforts, the ‘Cats have work to do with Big Ten play around the corner.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Illinois — “There were only a couple of mistakes that we made. Two were mental and one was a missed tackle,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald of his defense’s first half struggles against the UNLV run game on Saturday. “So its hard for me to get upset schematically when we’ve got a guy there to make the play...we just had to execute cleaner.”

Regardless of what they changed, the Wildcat defensive front certainly did that, getting the job done down the stretch to help earn a 30-14 victory. After a weak first half in which they were gashed by the running game of a weaker opponent in the Rebels, NU dominated, not allowing a single point, garnering five sacks, and forcing three turnovers in the final thirty minutes alone, all while the game remained at least somewhat in doubt.

“I think in the first half, we were too tense,” remarked veteran defensive end Joe Gaziano with regards to how Northwestern improved against the run and the big play generally as the game went on. “We were overthinking, trying to impress our home crowd...In the second half we got loose and went out there and actually had some fun.”

The stars led the way for the Wildcats in the second half. With their depth limited at defensive end, Gaziano and Earnest Brown IV took on increased pass-rush roles with no complaints and possibly even more production. The pair combined for four tackles for loss (three sacks) and each forced a fumble, with the former especially setting the edge successfully against the run while remaining dangerous as a rusher.

“There were only a couple of plays in the first half where [Rogers] took a full five-step drop,” commented Gaziano about UNLV’s quick-pass game.

“When we went up by two scores, obviously we were able to pin our ears back a little,” added Fitzgerald.

Another member of the front can be credited with making that happen. After a difficult first half that saw Northwestern’s linebackers get easily bottled up for some of the aforementioned chunk plays and missed a few tackles, their leader, Paddy Fisher, stepped up down the stretch. The redshirt junior was all over the field in the second half, picking a ball off, breaking up three total passes, and looking like a downfield force on the whole.

For Northwestern, it had to be good to see individual members and potential stars step up to lead them through a rough patch after the quick Rebels offense, helmed by Armani Rogers and Charles Williams, had them two steps behind throughout the first half. But at the same time, against a clearly inferior opponent, the fact that those game-saving performances were at least partially needed does not bode well.

While the offense dominated in the trenches all game long, the Wildcat defense was at a clear disadvantage early on. With no injuries to their core run defenders and two weeks to prepare, Northwestern still looked caught off guard at times by the UNLV rushing attack,

Losing at the point of attack on the interior, with the second level looking a step slow behind them, it became clear that there is still work to be done for this group against the run. Meanwhile, the secondary acquitted themselves well enough against an unimpressive passing attack, but still committed a few silly penalties in spots that could have been costly against a better team.

The stars shined brightly enough to help the offense finish things off and get the job done on Saturday, and though their counterparts arguably looked more promising, there were certainly positives to take away from the resilient, workmanlike defensive effort. And after their abysmal offensive performance in East Lansing against ASU, Michigan State shouldn’t pose a tremendous challenge for this group either.

But even if they can get through a below average Sparty unit, greater challenges loom with Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Ohio State awaiting next.

“Can I enjoy tonight first? I don’t want to worry about that. I don’t want to fast-forward too quick,” Fitzgerald said when asked to break down some potential matchups with MSU.

And he’s right. For now, there’s no reason that Northwestern shouldn’t soak this one in. The defense has let up just 24 points through two games and forced five turnovers

But despite the impressive finish and some tremendous standout players and plays, NU’s ever relied-upon defense has some work to do over the next seven days.