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Paddy Fisher, Joe Gaziano are Northwestern’s defensive players to watch

The Wildcats’ defense is certainly better than their offense, but is that enough?

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

With Wisconsin’s No. 1 defense on the horizon, it’s tempting to overlook an unranked, 1-4 Northwestern team, who’s offense ranks among the worst in all of college football no matter how you look at it. Northwestern’s defense, however, is where their strength lies.

The unit has only given up 19.8 points per game this season, which ranks No. 30 in the FBS, and they’ve only allowed 318.8 yards per game, which ranks No. 26. Their red zone defense has only allowed their opponents’ six touchdowns out of 14 visits to the red zone.

“They do a tremendous job on defense,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “Really that whole defense is back from last year, Big Ten Championship game. Pat (Fitzgerald) is as good a coach as there is in the country. That’s documented. It’s hard to find a yard against them. I think they’re a top 30 defense in the country. I believe they held Wisconsin under 300 total yards. I mean, they’re good.”

Day said Northwestern’s defense, run by defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, has been around for a long time, and therefore knows exactly how an offense is going to attack and will adjust accordingly.

The players to watch on Northwestern’s defense include junior linebacker Paddy Fisher —a 2018 first-team All-Big Ten selection — and fifth year senior defensive end Joe Gaziano.

Fisher has recorded 37 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups, one forced fumble, and Northwestern’s one and only interception this season. Gaziano is a two-time second-team All-Big Ten selection who has made 24 tackles and leads his team with 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles so far this year.

Fisher, who could have left for the NFL last year but chose to stay in Evanston for another year, is one of the best linebackers in the country. His 6-foot-4, 246-pound frame allows him to shake blockers and attack linemen better than most.

In last year’s Big Ten Championship against Ohio State, Fisher led the Northwestern defense with 11 total tackles, 8 of which were solo.

In a press conference earlier this week, Gaziano said the key to defending Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is to be physical, clog the middle, and not let him escape the pocket—something the Nebraska defense, and Gaziano specifically, has shown they can do. However, in last year’s B1G championship matchup, Gaziano only recorded 4 tackles against the Buckeyes.

Gaziano will graduate after this season as one of the Wildcats’ all-time sack leaders (he’s recorded 24.5 sacks so far). He’s also No. 10 in the Big Ten in sacks-per-game.

While Northwestern’s defense is much... much... better than their offense, I’m not convinced they can beat Ohio State’s No. 7 ranked offense by themselves. They say the best defense is a good offense, but does it work the other way around?