Football: Northwestern’s defense stifles Rutgers, controls the line of scrimmage in its first Big Ten win


Gabe Bider/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern players celebrate a third-down stop. The Wildcats gave up just 222 yards in their 21-7 win over Rutgers.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


Chris Bergin went into Saturday’s game against Rutgers as the Big Ten’s leader in tackles.

Unlike its graduate linebacker, Northwestern’s defense was near the bottom of the conference statistics. After five games under new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, the unit gave up an average of 448.6 yards and 27.2 points per game.

Saturday was different. The Wildcats (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) gave up just 222 yards, tied for its most tackles-for-loss since a Nov. 2017 matchup against Minnesota and sacked Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral four times in a 21-7 win over Rutgers (3-4, 0-4 Big Ten).

After the game, standing at a podium on the top floor of Welsh-Ryan Arena, Bergin said the performance brought confidence to the defense. It also meant something more.

“It shows us the kind of defense we can be,” Bergin, who finished with nine tackles and a pass breakup, said. “The kind of defense we need to be consistently to win games in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten.”

On Saturday at Ryan Field during Homecoming Weekend, the unit not only demonstrated growth from giving up 657 yards in a loss to Nebraska — a record under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

NU’s play, from finishing with 11 takedowns behind the line of scrimmage to allowing the Scarlet Knights to cross midfield just twice, was exactly the kind of performance that could help spark a turnaround in the second half of the regular season.

Coming off the bye, junior defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore continued his dominance at the line of scrimmage, racking up seven tackles, a team-leading four tackles for loss and one sack. Sophomore linebacker Bryce Gallagher, the brother of longtime Cats linebacker Blake, finished with a team-high 10 tackles.

Of Rutgers’ 222 yards, 97 came on one drive. 46 of those yards were the result of a downfield shot from Vedral to wide receiver Bo Melton.

“You just got to leave (the Nebraska game) in the locker room and that’s what happened,” Fitzgerald said. “They came back ready to fight.”

The Scarlet Knights averaged just 3.4 yards per play, courtesy of a NU squad that gave up its fewest yards since a 43-3 win over Maryland in the 2020 season opener. The Cats forced Rutgers to go 5-for-17 on third down, with crucial stops including Bergin’s takedown of Vedral deep in NU’s red zone in the third quarter. On the ensuing play, Scarlet Knights kicker Valentino Ambrosio’s 33-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.

Vedral, who finished with 152 passing yards, 22 rushing yards and a touchdown, felt pressure throughout the afternoon. He was sacked a combined four times by Adebawore, Gallagher, graduate defensive lineman Jeremy Meiser and graduate defensive lineman Samdup Miller. He also fell victim four times to quarterback hurries.

Outside of a seven play, 97-yard touchdown march and the 10-play, 44-yard possession that resulted in Ambrosio’s missed kick, the Cats allowed no drives longer than 20 yards and six plays. Rutgers’ last four drives went for a combined 18 yards. Two of its drives earlier in the games finished in negative yardage.

“When we’re making plays and we have more energy, we get a lot more excited,” Adebawore said. “We really emphasize trying to control the line of scrimmage and I thought we did a good job of that today.”

A dominant performance from the defense helped spark 402 total yards on the other side of the ball, including a 267-yard and two touchdown performance from sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski.

Fitzgerald called the win the “start of a second season.” For the defense, it represented playmaking reminiscent of the 2020 unit that finished with the fifth-best scoring defense in the nation.

Whether NU can maintain this momentum will be on display next weekend when it heads to Ann Arbor to face No. 8 Michigan at the Big House. The Wolverines average the most rushing yards (246.5 per game) and the second-best scoring offense (38.5 points) in the conference. Yet Adebawore and Bergin said the unit is ready to embrace the challenge.

They have today’s performance to back it up.

“There’s a lot of fight in that locker room,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of pride. I’m really proud of the way they responded.”

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