As the Ohio State Buckeyes and Northwestern Wildcats prepare to face off on Saturday, both teams unequivocally know that NU’s defense is what could determine the outcome (AKA severity of the spread, let’s be honest).
For years under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats’ defense has been their calling card. It makes total sense, given the coach’s background and storied career as an All-American linebacker. In fact, only twice in the past decade has Northwestern’s defense finished outside the top-50 nationally in points per game allowed. Many years they have finished in or around the top-25, with 2020 being Fitzgerald’s masterpiece (15.9 PPG allowed, good for fifth in FBS). Unfortunately for the guys in Evanston, they have won only four games since the end of that pandemic-shortened season, and their defense has taken a big step back.
In this case, the root cause seems to be NU’s inability to stop the run. Last year, the Wildcats surrendered an average of 213.9 rushing yards per game (!) to their opponents, finishing near the bottom of FBS rankings. They also gave up nearly 5.4 yards per carry. Teams were unafraid to run against Northwestern, and clearly for good reason. The ‘Cats have improved to the point where they are currently allowing 186.4 rushing yards per game in 2022, but that number barely puts them inside the top-100. Playing in the Big Ten has only made matters worse, as Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa in particular have run all over Fitzgerald’s bunch. And I expect the Buckeyes to do the same.
To hang with OSU this weekend, Northwestern will need all of their biggest, baddest, best defenders to play well... Like, really, really well. Because one or two guys having a fantastic game is unlikely to slow down Ohio State’s offense — at least not each and every weapon at Ryan Day’s disposal. So it will take a total group effort, with NU’s leaders stepping up on that side of the ball.
One of those impressive leaders is linebacker Bryce Gallagher. This redshirt junior and family legacy did not see the field often during his first two seasons, but developed into a defensive stalwart once given the opportunity. He is now one of the leading tacklers in the Big Ten – both currently, and since the beginning of 2021 – as well as this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.
Bryce, a 6-foot-2, 240-pounder from Massachusetts, followed in older brother Blake’s footsteps by committing to Fitzgerald and Northwestern all the way back in 2017 (enrolled in 2019). The Gallaghers shared a position room and technically played together for two seasons, but it was Blake who arrived first and gained most of the notoriety... and all of the playing time. Which was well-deserved, because from 2017-2020, he racked up 332 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, and five interceptions, while earning various Big Ten honors. Bryce was ultimately forced to take a back seat to big brother, until replacing him in the Wildcats’ starting lineup last season. From that point on, he has continued the family legacy.
Gallagher (Bryce from here on out) took to his new role quite well in 2021, despite a bit of a slow start. After being credited with just one tackle in NU’s opener last year, he put up five against Indiana State in Week 2. Then seven. Then five again. Solid, but certainly not Luke Kuechly-esque for a four-game stretch. However, he then went on to average exactly 10 tackles per game through mid-November, totaling 70 across seven games. And he was incredibly consistent in doing to. Gallagher’s tackles by game went 10-10-14-12-9-9-6, with 4.5 TFL and one sack for good measure. He had fully arrived, and finished the season with 90 total tackles.
2022 has seen much of the same from this now fourth-year LB. Gallagher sits at 79 tackles through eight games to go with 1.5 sacks. The Wildcats’ best defender has also added an interception and a forced fumble, but turnovers and big plays are not typically a huge part of his game. In fact, it is fair to say he is severely lacking in that department. Because in 30 career appearances, he has totaled just 2.5 sacks, 11 TFL, one interception, and a single forced fumble. Less than ideal, but somebody has to do the dirty work, right?
That is what Gallagher does: Studies his opponent, follows the gameplan, and makes a bunch of tackles when he is near the ball. Flashy? Not at all. But dozens of teams across the country would love to have his steady presence in the middle of their defense. I do not view the Northwestern’s MLB as a game-changing player come Saturday, but he is unlikely to blow an assignment, commit a foolish penalty, or miss many tackles throughout the course of the game. He is fundamentally sound, and will go down swinging until the final whistle blows or he is removed from the game.
The Wildcats would likely need 11 of this guy to stand a chance on defense, but do not tell that to Bryce Gallagher.