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Wherever Paddy Fisher has gone, Northwestern has followed

In what’s likely the senior’s final game as a Wildcat, he has a chance to notch one more accomplishment.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After Northwestern’s 22-10 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, senior linebacker Paddy Fisher took to the Zoom podium. He seemed somber as reporters began asking him questions.

Indeed, the Wildcats failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities and upset the heavily favored Buckeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium. Despite limiting 2019 Heisman Trophy runner-up Justin Fields, the defense captained by the Texas native yielded an OSU-program record 331 yards to running back Trey Sermon.

Nonetheless, Fisher and fellow fifth-year senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman struck a somewhat optimistic chord struck as they reflected on their time in Evanston.

“I’m just super proud of this group of men and who we’ve become and how much we’ve grown,” Fisher said.

As he plays in perhaps his final game in purple and white on New Year’s Day against Auburn, Fisher will leave Northwestern with an enduring legacy. The peaks and valleys of his career correspond roughly with the progression of the program he led into many hard-fought battles.

Across two Big Ten West Championships, two bowl wins, an additional 10-win season a disappointing 3-9 campaign, Fisher remains representative of where Northwestern has been — a perpetual upset-minded underdog — to where it may be heading —perennial contenders in the Big Ten.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“The bar wasn’t set that high when we got here,” he said postgame in Indianapolis.

Fisher arrived in Evanston alongside fellow Katy High School teammate Travis Whillock. Both redshirted during the 2016 season.

Pat Fitzgerald was entering his second decade as head coach at his alma mater. His tenure had seen Northwestern become a regular in bowl games with squads defined by fundamentally-sound defense hustle, and grit.

However, it had yet to take the next step toward reaching new heights, winning its division. In 2015, consecutive losses to Michigan and Iowa ended its West hopes midway through the season, while 2016 was more of the same.

Fisher spent much of his redshirt season under the wing of Anthony Walker, Jr., but when Walker declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season, the ‘Cats had a major hole to fill on both the defensive and leadership fronts. At Big Ten Media Day in 2017, Fitz specifically remarked that replacing someone with the impact and defensive presence of Walker would be an incredible challenge.

Fisher was up the task. The redshirt freshman won the starting job and debuted on September 2, 2017 against Nevada. A week later, he was the lone bright spot in a 41-17 thumping from Duke, logging 18 tackles.

His breakout game came in the Wildcats’ triple-overtime victory over No. 16 Michigan State, when he led the defense with 17 tackles and two forced fumbles.

He finished the season leading Northwestern and all FBS first-years in tackles. He earned freshman All-American honors and was named Big Ten Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. As the 6-foot-4 Texan established himself as the face of a stingy Northwestern defense, the Wildcats rattled off eight straight wins, including three consecutive in overtime, after a 2-3 start, leaving no doubt about the core of the unit.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Over the last 25 years, the paradigm of the hard-nosed Northwestern linebacker is nothing new. Fitzgerald led Gary Barnett’s squad to a Rose Bowl berth as the heart and soul of the 1995 Big Ten Champions. Barry Gardner followed Fitz, going from a walk-on offensive lineman to an eight-year NFL veteran. No FBS player has more career tackles than current NU linebackers coach Tim McGarigle, and Walker is now a stalwart for the Indianapolis Colts.

Fisher’s breakout season brought these comparisons to the forefront, but he said he couldn’t let the hype get to him.

Despite the successes of 2017, expectations for Northwestern were somewhat tempered heading into the 2018 season with a tough conference schedule and the loss of four defensive players to the league.

The major defensive losses meant Fisher would need to emerge as a leader for Mike Hankwitz’s unit. Ahead of the season, his teammates elected him as one of their captains as a sophomore.

I was a little surprised, but it felt good,” he said preseason. “To see my teammates look up to me and see me as a leader felt great and was exciting for me.”

The year did not get off to an ideal start. After an underwhelming loss to Daniel Jones and Duke, the ‘Cats infamously collapsed in the second half against Akron. A clearly dejected Fisher stood at the podium: “We’re hurt, we’re upset, not how we wanted the game to go,” he said. “We have to fix this as a collective unit, as a team.” Their next game saw a 17-0 lead over Michigan evaporate and they fell to 1-3.

But by no means was Northwestern out of the Big Ten West race thanks to a season-opening win at Purdue. NU would need to fight through a tough schedule to achieve even bowl eligibility.

Northwestern won its seven remaining conference tilts to sweep the Big Ten West and book a trip to Indianapolis. They fought no matter the situation — down 14 with five minutes remaining against Nebraska and in need of a 99-yard drive to tie the game or locked in a gritty battle at Kinnick Stadium with a division title on the line. If and when the offense sputtered, the defense which he captained embraced its bend-but-don’t-break mantra, preventing opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone more than half the time. Its defense also generated some timely turnovers, a function of the “want to” mentality espoused by their captain.

At the center of this run was Fisher. His draft stock certainly elevated thanks to his strength as a run defender and tackler, a product of his instinct and athletic frame. Yet, his presence on the field, no matter what the box score indicated, served as a major conduit to NU’s success. To quote his fellow Irish Law Firm partner Blake Gallagher after the Wildcats’ upset victory over Michigan State when Fisher registered only five tackles, “Paddy played his ass off.”

He put a bow on the regular season with a game-sealing interception to clinch a fourth straight victory over Illinois.

Despite falling to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game, Northwestern sought to establish a new normal. A hearty performance from the underdog ‘Cats, which Fisher led with 11 tackles, asserted it wouldn’t be long before they returned to Indy.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fisher once more earned postseason accolades for a second-straight season with 100+ tackles with four forced fumbles as well. Mock drafts placed him somewhere in the first round, and another solid season might have been enough for him to declare for the NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. Northwestern began to capture the attention of the rest of the Big Ten and so did Fisher.

“I think we proved that we weren’t just happy to be here,” Fitzgerald said following the Big Ten title game.

Neither Northwestern nor Fisher could build upon their past successes in 2019. The defense actually improved from 64th in yards per game to 26th, but the offense’s inability to score points placed upon it an undue amount of pressure. Northwestern dropped from 26th to 100th in the FBS on turnovers per game. Without this direct impact, the bend-but-don’t-break approach which served Northwestern so well crumbled.

The preseason First Team All-American regressed, failing to reach 100 tackles for the first time in his career. As the ‘Cats plummeted during a 3-9 season, Fisher’s draft stock didn’t fare much better. After eight forced fumbles in his first two seasons in Evanston, Fisher only punched the ball out once, in the opener against Stanford. Moreover, the graduation of Nate Hall perhaps exposed Fisher in pass coverage, not his strong suit when compared to the run.

This sudden shift from 8-1 to 1-8 in the Big Ten was a gut check for the program, and the defense’s shortcomings underscored Fisher’s importance to the unit. If he could help dictate the opponent’s run game, the defense would be in a comfortable position to make plays, create turnovers, and cover for the offense.

If there’s any intangible that Fisher has brought throughout his career as a Northwestern Wildcat, his relentless effort stands out. Amid the ‘Cats’ historic losing streak that brought a level of cynicism and negativity hardly seen during Fitz’s tenure, the man often compared to his coach affirmed his commitment to this notion.

“We’re fighting every day, not giving up.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Northwestern at Illinois

In December 2019, it wasn’t shocking when Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported that Fisher would return for his senior season, one last opportunity for him to leave an enduring mark in Evanston.

The uncertainty brought upon college football by the COVID-19 pandemic placed his return and the season in jeopardy. Northwestern’s other senior NFL prospect, offensive lineman Rashawn Slater, as well as his former high school teammate Whillock, were among five players who opted out of the season.

With the loss of Samdup Miller at defensive end and Whillock at safety, it would be up to the senior linebacking trio, led by Fisher, to steady the ship.

Ahead of the season opener against Maryland, Hankwitz lauded his captain’s commitment amid these uncertain times: “He’s a great leader for us. So we’re excited that he wanted to play because we’re excited that we’re getting to play, and it certainly helps when a young man like that says, ‘I want to play too.’ He’s providing great leadership by doing that.”

Fisher returned to the form of his first two seasons, quarterbacking one of the best defenses in the country. Northwestern shot onto the national stage, clinching a second Big Ten West title and, at one point, slotting in at eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings.

The ‘Cats created turnovers and kept opponents out of the end zone. They rank second in defensive S&P+, behind only Georgia. The secondary emerged as the focal point: No FBS player had more interceptions than Brandon Joseph, while Greg Newsome II emerged as one of the top corners in the country. Their successes in limiting the opponents’ air attack underpinned the capability of the linebacking corps of Fisher, Gallagher, and Chris Bergin to control the run game and force opposing offenses into mistakes.

This dynamic was on national display in Northwestern’s landmark 17-7 victory over No. 10 Wisconsin, its first top-10 win in 11 years. The secondary continued its phenomenal play, intercepting Graham Mertz three times, and the defensive line held their own in the trenches. Fisher played arguably his best game of the season, leading the team with 13 tackles, including two for loss, and adding a forced fumble. He, Bergin and Gallagher combined for 34 takedowns and two forced fumbles.

It’s clear Fisher feeds off the rest of the defense, and vice versa. Fitz joked after the win over the Badgers that no one wore neck rolls, but this defense demonstrated the grit, hustle and fortitude always present in his teams.

In that regard, the comparisons between the Fisher, the 2020 Butkus-Fitzgerald Award winner, and the award’s namesake are natural.

“I’ve had the opportunity to sit there and watch film with him from back in his heyday, and you know there’s no mistake why he was a two-time All-American and won all those awards,” Fisher said about his head coach. “He was a dog.”

Fitz had a dissenting view: “There’s no doubt he’s a better player than I am. It’s not even close.”

Regardless of where Fisher ranks among the group of Northwestern linebackers, including Fitz, Gardner, McGarigle, Walker and his contemporaries Bergin and Gallagher, the progression of his career has seen the expectations of Northwestern transform.

Fisher articulated that winning a Big Ten Championship would be the best accomplishment in his time at Northwestern, something that ‘Cats came close to achieving a couple of weeks ago. Nonetheless, his leadership and tenacity put Northwestern in a position to pursue this new normal.

“I had no idea this was going to be the outcome,” Fisher said, speaking about his five years as a Wildcat. “I came in with just the expectation to work hard and see what happened and just grip the wheel tight and hold on. I had fun and enjoyed the whole ride and made tons of friends and tons of memories. It’s been great.”

The kid from Katy has served as one of Northwestern’s most important and recognizable players for the last four years. His impact, aside from racking up tackles and forcing turnovers, is defined by his leadership of a group that pushed NU into a legitimate Big Ten program. He has one more opportunity to don the purple and white against Auburn on New Year’s Day, a reminder of his unflappable presence in a program poised to reach new heights.