Football: Blake Gallagher thriving in larger role, leading Northwestern in tackles


Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Blake Gallagher rises to make a tackle. The sophomore has started strong in his first season as a starter.

Joseph Wilkinson, Reporter


Last year, Blake Gallagher was the new guy. He’d rotated in defensively through the first four games of the season, but then Paddy Fisher was ejected for targeting in the second half against Penn State.

Fisher’s classmate, Gallagher, stepped into his role at inside linebacker. Across the line from Gallagher was Saquon Barkley, who was just months away from being selected with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft. For two drives, Barkley met his match. Maybe everything would be fine.

Then, Gallagher hit his learning curve. On the freshman’s third drive as the every-down guy in the center of the defense, Barkley sped past him and all his teammates en route to a 53-yard touchdown to blow the game open.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you get into the Big Ten games and start playing, with the speed of the game,” Gallagher said. “You can learn by studying the plays and defense and things like that, but you don’t really start learning things until you’re on the field actually doing it, getting the reps at it.”

Now a sophomore, Gallagher is thriving in his new full-time starting role on the Wildcats’ defense.

That defense has allowed 27 or fewer points in every game so far this year, and its leader in tackles — with 38, plus two tackles for loss — is the same guy who was left watching Barkley run past him last year: Gallagher.

“Something I’ve always tried to play by and have no doubt about my game is being physical and attacking,” Gallagher said. “I’m still working on that, but when all else fails, I just try to fly around and be physical. I’m still building my game but when I go out and attack, good things happen.”

In any NU defense under coach Pat Fitzgerald, the linebackers are the heartbeat. It relies on defensive linemen to eat up blocks, freeing up the guys behind them, mostly Gallagher, Fisher and senior Nate Hall this year, to make plays.

The trio has not disappointed so far this year. Fisher ranks just behind Gallagher on the team with 34 tackles, while Hall — who will miss Saturday’s contest in East Lansing — sits fourth with 26. The group has created its fair share of havoc as well, combining for four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception.

“The older guys have done a great job helping me out with teaching me everything from the time I got here last year, teaching me the ins and the outs of the position,” Gallagher said. “I’m playing next to two of the best doing it right now in college football, so that makes it a heck of a lot easier to just go out there and have those two playing next to me, getting me in the right spots.”

Linebackers coach Tim McGarigle credited Gallagher’s continued improvement and commitment to learning the position to his ability to earn that starting spot in camp.

“He’s gotten better every practice. And you can see it in the games, from the first game to the second, third, fourth,” McGarigle said. “He’s always working his craft. You can tell he’s studying the playbook, studying his opponent as hard as anybody.”

Gallagher’s work has not stopped with the fourth game. After all, the Cats’ defense may not have allowed more than 27 points this year, but the team is still 1-3, with numerous difficult matchups ahead.

Teams have occasionally worked against NU’s linebackers in the short-to-medium passing game, and Gallagher is constantly working to improve across the board.

“Pass concepts, run concepts, situations in the game, everything around the game, I just want to keep building throughout the season and get better at it,” Gallagher said. “I’m just continually getting a knowledge for the game.”

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