Football: Joe Gaziano brings fresh spark to Northwestern’s defensive line


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Joe Gaziano sings the fight song after Northwestern’s win over Michigan State. The redshirt-freshman’s sack and fumble recovery helped shift momentum in the Wildcats’ victory.

Ben Pope, Reporter


In July, Joe Gaziano’s father, Frank Gaziano, was sworn in as a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

But last Saturday, it was Joe who delivered justice, demolishing Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke for a safety in his first career sack.

“I used my hands well against the offensive tackle, and I was able to beat him,” Gaziano said. “As soon as I got a step, I was just thinking to get to the quarterback as fast as possible … and that speed that I used getting around the block just propelled me through him.”

Highlight clips of the redshirt freshman’s sack went semi-viral on the Internet, and the Big Ten received its first glimpse of the man expected to become Northwestern’s next dominant defensive lineman. After the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald credited the play with turning the tide in the 54-40 win — the Cats were losing 17-14 prior to the safety.

Gaziano arrived in Evanston last fall as the defending Gatorade Player of the Year in Massachusetts and the second-highest ranked member of NU’s 2015 recruiting class. He soon discovered, however, that he had a lot left to learn — and a host of great defensive ends, including future NFL players Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, from which to learn.

“They taught me a lot of what the base defense was, of what we’re trying to do as defensive linemen at Northwestern,” Gaziano said. “Dean played with a lot of tenacity and a relentless effort, and it was great to learn from and see him do that. … Deonte also played with a lot of speed and power, and it was great to watch him and how he would translate that to the field.”

Throughout his 2015 redshirt year, Lowry and Gibson, in addition to defensive line coach Marty Long, helped Gaziano adjust to the college game.

“A year ago, he played really, really high; he didn’t use his hands as well,” Long said. “Now he’s punching and separating and getting off blocks and making plays.”

This fall, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound lineman began seeing sporadic playing time, recording nine tackles through the first five games of the season.

But when junior starting defensive end Xavier Washington went down with an injury last week, Gaziano knew his role was about to increase dramatically — and he was prepared.

After studying the playbook “in and out” all week, Gaziano aced a written test on gap exchanges, blitz packages and other memorized material on Friday night, Long said.

“He did perfect on it, and I told him that he needed to go out and play that way,” Long said. “And he did.”

Playing primarily on third downs, Gaziano was 7-for-7 at the “point of attack” by the method the team uses, Fitzgerald said. In the box score, he recorded a career-high four tackles — including the game-changing sack — and alertly recovered a loose-ball fumble in the third quarter.

He was awarded the team’s Defensive Player of the Week award for the performance.

“We needed a big play having (Washington) down last week, and Joe came through,” senior defensive end C.J. Robbins said. “You could see by the first couple drives that we came out flat, and that (sack) really gave us the spark that we needed.”

Washington is again not expected to play in Saturday’s homecoming game against Indiana, but Long said Gaziano’s performance in East Lansing earned the young lineman more playing time moving forward regardless of the rest of the team’s injury report.

The key to that increased playing time could be his versatility: Despite playing mostly end so far, Gaziano can play all four positions on the defensive line.

“I have a good first step, and I’m quick off the ball, so I’m able to play end, and I’m able to chase down a running back or quarterback because I’ve got that speed,” Gaziano said. “But also I have the ability to play low to the ground and take on blocks well and be stout on the inside.”

The same high level of adaptability which made Gaziano a top recruit two years ago has now molded him into an important fill-in contributor for the defense during the second half of the season — and the likely heir to an every-week starting role once Robbins and senior Ifeadi Odenigbo graduate in spring.

“He’ll play all four positions because he has the ability to do that,” Long said. “He has the size, the range and he understands the complete package.”

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