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Northwestern’s defense finally gets its act together in 21-7 victory over Rutgers

Even if temporary, the performance was a breath of fresh air.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Did the 2020 Northwestern defense return for Homecoming yesterday?

That’s not necessarily a legitimate question — Greg Newsome is currently sidelined for the Cleveland Browns, Earnest Brown IV sits on the Los Angeles Rams’ roster and plenty of other former veterans like JR Pace weren’t present either.

Watch NU’s performance yesterday, though, and it was almost as if all of Ryan Field had collectively travelled back to a time when the Wildcats has a top 10 defense in the land.

Okay, maybe they weren’t that good, but the performance was a pleasant surprise. Northwestern came into its game against the Scarlet Knights giving up almost 235 rushing yards per game and gave up just 63 yards on 34 carries this time around. Rutgers’ passing attack didn’t have too much success either, with Noah Vedral completing 19-of-32 attempts for a mere 152 yards and one touchdown. A shutout was a legitimate possibility, save for Cam Mitchell getting beat by Bo Milton on the Scarlet Knights’ lone score.

“We’ve played some really good quarters in some games defensively, but this was probably our best game collectively as a defense,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think that group’s got a ton of pride. We’re getting a little bit more experienced now as the season goes along. We’ve still gotta be better with our eyes, we’ve still gotta be better fundamentally, but there was a lot of positive growth today.”

Whatever changes the Wildcats made in the bye week, they seemed to work. After getting thrashed in Lincoln, Northwestern returned home and got it together. It appeared that the Wildcats’ defense was playing a more passive game against the Scarlet Knights, choosing to sit back a bit and let plays develop, rather than being overly aggressive and risk being beat over the top. At its most fundamental level, the “bend, don’t break” style of play preached under former defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz made its return Saturday.

While it’s important to acknowledge that Rutgers is one of the weaker opponents that the ‘Cats have played all season, it’s also important to note that the Scarlet Knights are likely a better team than Duke, as the Blue Devils were just shut out by Virginia. The improvement is certainly there, and the stats tell the story, both on the collective and individual level.

Take Bryce Gallagher, for example. Gallagher has been a core component of the linebackers all season, the position group that has taken the most heat and criticism from media and fans alike for poor defensive performances. Prior to the game against Rutgers, he had only recorded 10+ tackles once, and those came against Nebraska two weeks ago. On top of that, he had yet to tally a sack in 2021. Against the Scarlet Knights, Gallagher recorded 10 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack.

“I think we all agreed today was Bryce’s coming out party, so that was quite fun to watch while I was out there with him. I got sick of hearing his name at one point from the announcer,” veteran linebacker Chris Bergin said. “It’s just so great to see a guy who’s worked so hard finally get to see some of the fruits of his labor, and just getting to watch his growth each and every day has been so special.”

Overall, it was a welcome change to see the Wildcats defense come out so strongly against an opponent. It was, obviously, their first conference win, as well as the lowest point total they’ve given up to a Power Five team this year. The rushing total given up by the ‘Cats was their second-lowest allowed this season, trailing only their performance against Indiana State.

“I think the defense, those guys played lights out today, they had our backs,” quarterback Ryan Hilinski said. “On numerous drives, there was adversity where the offense didn’t move the ball, but those defensive guys stood up today, they had my back. It was definitely good to have them on our side.”

As Northwestern’s season continues to progress, the landscape now looks a bit different. After their loss to Nebraska, things looked extremely bleak for the Wildcats. They remain ever-present in a division of lackluster offenses and currently sit tied for fourth in the Big Ten West. A division title is all but out of the window, but the possibility of a 6-6 season somehow still remains. After all, teams like Wisconsin and Iowa, the preseason West favorites, are devoid of offensive ability, while games against Illinois, Minnesota and maybe even Purdue remain winnable for the Wildcats. The only game that is likely entirely out of reach comes next week at Michigan.

“I think we took a step in the right direction today. We took two steps back, then another two steps forward,” Bergin said. “Respect — in this game, in this conference — is kind of only as good as your last game. We took a step in the right direction, but still have a long way to go in order to achieve our goals and to be where we want to be as a defense, as a team and as a program.”