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Opponent Preview: Northwestern’s Defense

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Highlighted by an elite rush defense and strong secondary, Northwestern’s defense will attempt to do what only Washington was able to accomplish in all of 2018…stop the Utes from scoring.

​Despite some early struggles, Utah’s offense scored an average of 29.2 points this season, with the lowest scoring efforts coming at the hands of Washington’s 12th ranked defense. While formidable, Northwestern ranks 63rd nationally in total defense, allowing 390.7 yards per game and 5.61 yards per play, making them the eighth toughest defense the Utes have faced in 2018, allowing only 23.5 points per game.

At the heart of the Wildcats defense is the linebacking duo of Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher, who have combined for 223 tackles on the season. The pair of sophomores have flourished this season as elite rush defenders and are a major reason for Northwestern’s rush defense finishing 32nd in the country this season, allowing only 1,724 yards on the ground through 446 attempts as a unit.

Adding to the pressure up front is junior lineman Joe Gaziano. At 6’4”, 275 lbs, the pass rusher is an intimidating presence on the defensive front, accumulating a team high 6.5 sacks in 2018 along with 11.5 tackles for loss and 41 total tackles.

Downfield, the Wildcats are loaded with turnover hungry defenders who have managed eleven forced fumbles and ten interceptions on the season. Sophomore defensive back JR Pace leads the team with three interceptions, tied with senior linebacker Nate Hall, who will be sidelined with a shoulder injury. Filling in for Hall is sophomore Chris Bergen, whose starting reps against Michigan State, Nebraska and Rutgers earlier in the season resulted in 26 total tackles, one sack and zero turnovers.

Utah’s offense, despite being severely fractured at the tail end of the season, produced well enough to win out after a tough loss to Arizona State and clinch the PAC-12 South, scoring an average of 32.3 points in the final three games of the regularseason. Through that stretch, the Utes faced three defensive units that all ranked higher than Northwestern, suggesting that even a depleted Utah offense should be able to score against this tough but manageable Wildcats defense.