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Northwestern’s secret weapon Joe Spivak is getting it done on both sides of the ball

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Once a backup, the defensive tackle has won hearts blocking for and against the run.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Spivak never forgets his juice at home. The senior defensive tackle is the most lively guy in any room he enters.

“Exactly what you see is what you get, he’s juiced up, psyched up all the time,” said Blake Gallagher, his roommate of two years. “You never stop laughing around this dude.”

Northwestern’s offensive success thus far this season can be tied not only to its ability to generate chunk plays but its red zone efficiency. Through three games, the Wildcats (3-0) have scored on 100% of their red zone trips and have found the end zone eight times.

NU is 7-for-7 in goal-to-go situations, when the next first down it has to make is a touchdown. Three of them have come via the pass and four on the ground. Despite a new offensive coordinator and new scheme, the emphasis for this offense is still on the run, especially down near the goal line.

Now the offense has a secret weapon: a 300-pound defensive tackle. On several occasions, Spivak has served in short-yardage red zone packages as a fullback to help pave the way for the ball carrier or to help disguise the play as a run. He set the tone when he bullied a Maryland defender to part the seas for Isaiah Bowser to walk in for the season’s first score.

Over the summer, coaches were talking about what kind of fullbacks they wanted to have with the superback position, the McCallian combo of a fullback and tight end, eliminated, and approached Spivak, asking if he’d be willing to be a short-yardage guy.

“I got a text or a call from one of them,” Spivak said. “I was driving home from workouts. ‘Hey, can you catch the ball?’ And I said, ‘Hell yeah, I can catch the ball.’ I’ve never caught a ball in my life. But after that, we just kind of started shucking and jiving about it for a while. And then when we started preparing for game prep Coach Heff [tight ends coach Bob Heffner] pulled me in to his meeting room, took me through the plays with all the other tight ends, and blocking back, showed me what to do and just kind of took me under their wing.”

So far, it has worked out just fine. In the Wildcats’ seven goal-to-go possessions, Spivak has been in the backfield for four of them. They’ve scored every time.

“He was unaware of the stat of the fullback assist, so I had to inform him there was a stat our there that showed he was doing his job,” said fellow defensive tackle Jake Saunders. “We’ve got to get him a better-fitting helmet for when he’s out there landing some of these blocks on people, it seems like he might be cutting his nose up a little bit.”

Even when the the play call isn’t a run, defenses are still paying attention to him. On John Raine’s touchdown catch that tied the game against Nebraska, Spivak drew two Huskers to him after the play fake, which gave quarterback Peyton Ramsey enough to make the throw.

The Fullvak understands his role from a unique perspective, as he’s normally on the other side of the line trying to stuff the run. He said he’s learned more about blocking schemes but that he actually came into the role with a working knowledge of them, and the more he knows about blocking schemes, the better.

“In the defensive line room, Coach Long has us learning blocking schemes from day one when we get here freshman year,” said Spivak. “So, because of him, and because of his hard coaching style, I already knew basic blocking schemes and then just had to find the adjustments that Coach Heff was giving us on the exact ways we do it here.”

The senior from Darien, Illinois, has used his prowess in the trenches to help him succeed as a starting defensive tackle. On a unit that has thinned due to opt outs and injuries, Spivak and Saunders have taken advantage of the opportunity, and the Wildcats’ allowed just 3.3 yards per carry to Maryland and Iowa, and 3.1 yards per attempt to Nebraska starting running back Dedrick Mills.

The Northwestern football world has taken enjoyment in Spivak’s presence on offense. Program sack leader Joe Gaziano, who’s now with the Los Angeles Chargers, tweeted during the game against Iowa that his account is now a Fullvak stan account.

Spivak said he’s humbled by and appreciates the outpouring of support he’s received from the fan base, and that it’s easy to succeed when all of his teammates are pulling for him and helping him out. Now, fans are dying for a Fullvak touchdown before season’s end.

“It’s definitely in my mind,” Spivak said jokingly. “My mind’s not the one that matters, but we’ll see. I just like running up the middle and blocking some guys. That’s just as much fun for me.”