In a year of chaos, Northwestern likely won B1G West on order, discipline and defense
Finally, some normalcy.
Two Big Ten teams knocking heads — quite literally, at times — on a crisp, late-autumn day on the shores of Lake Michigan. Big-time takeaways, huge stops and frequent stalemates in the trenches.
They’re hallmarks of what we know as B1G football. And in a year that’s been anything but usual, Northwestern’s commitment to its identity has it in prime position for a second division championship in three seasons.
“I didn’t say anything” special to the team this week, coach Pat Fitzgerald said after his team’s 17-7 win over No. 10 Wisconsin. “We just do what we do.”
Less than 630 combined yards of total offense. Just 5 3rd-down conversions by both teams. Three interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries for a Northwestern crew that ranks 2nd in the B1G in scoring defense and total defense (7th and 11th nationally). Wisconsin’s the only team ahead of the Wildcats in the conference, and the Badgers have played only 3 games due to COVID-19.
Yes, apparently they still play defense in Evanston.
Talk of stacked offenses and inflated over-unders have dominated the college football landscape this season. The maturation of run-pass option offenses combined with rules changes that limit defenders’ ability to make plays in space and lack of normal preparation have led to a ton of high-scoring affairs.
Not so with Northwestern.
Fitzgerald once famously called the RPO “the purest form of communism.” He’s built a team to tear down that wall, centered around linebackers like Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, who rarely miss assignments or tackles, and stout defensive back play from the likes of Greg Newsome II and Brandon Joseph.
Traditional Big Ten Football is Big Boy Football. Fitzgerald came of age playing it at Northwestern in the mid-1990s, and he’s instilled it into the fabric of a team that never beats itself but causes plenty of opponents to wallow in their own miscues.
For the 4th time in 5 games, the Wildcats shut out their opponent in the second half Saturday.
“It means a lot, but at the same time, it means nothing because we’ve still got a few more games left,” said Chicago native Newsome, who had a 4th-quarter interception and 2 pass breakups Saturday. “It’s not an upset. We knew we were going to win this game.”
They did it with a heavy heart. The family of former assistant Joe Orozco, who died suddenly last week at the age of 30, was present and celebrated with Northwestern postgame.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those that were touched by Joe,” Fitzgerald said.
It’s hard to know what Wisconsin might have been this season had the coronavirus not axed 2 of its games and derailed summer and fall preparations on multiple occasions.
It’s a talented, scrappy bunch in its own right, and a defense with a stout secondary remains underrated. Freshman quarterback Graham Mertz looked overwhelmed but still possesses the talent to put up a lot of great performances in this league.
The Badgers’ day will come again. Just probably not till 2021 at the earliest.
“You play [the season] out, and at the end you see what you’ve earned,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
But for now, this is Northwestern’s division — which looked like a long shot after the Wildcats went 3-9 last season. The ‘Cats should be favored in their final 3 matchups against Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois, and even with a loss would hold tiebreakers over Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue.
No. 3 Ohio State, meanwhile, saw its Saturday bout with No. 9 Indiana come down to the final play.
Could Northwestern’s stalwart defense get the best of Justin Fields and company Dec. 19 in the B1G championship game? That would mean a trip to the College Football Playoff.
There’s a long way to go. But it’d certainly be intriguing to find out, assuming Fitzgerald’s group takes care of business the next three weeks.
We’ll go out on a giant limb and say it will. It’s what this program does, on a more and more frequent basis.
“We expected this,” Fitzgerald said. “This isn’t something that’s a surprise to anybody in our program.
“This group’s got an amazing camaraderie, an amazing brotherhood. This wasn’t an upset tonight in our locker room.”