Near the end of Northwestern’s first quarter against Penn State, junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher watched quarterback Sean Clifford’s spiral pass.
As the ball moved down, it seemed to be on a perfect path to Gallagher. So he dove, intercepting the ball as it hit the ground. It was a moment of joy in a tense and rainy game, and his teammates jumped around him.
NU was unable to get past the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten), who struggled to consolidate offensively. But the Wildcats (1-4, 1-1) defense shone and Gallagher led the way. The Massachusetts native recorded his first career interception and a forced fumble, as well as scoring six solo tackles and recovering a fumble.
For Gallagher, Saturday’s escape was months in the making.
“I’ve been doing more reps and feeling more confident,” Gallagher said. “Conclusions are a mentality, so (I’ve been) having that ‘Go get the ball’ mentality. We have been emphasizing that as a defense. Seeing that it was transferred to Saturday was a good feeling.”
After two quiet first seasons at NU, Gallagher became a staple of the Cats lineup in 2021. He had 54 solo tackles, ranking second among the team. His 89 total tackles were good for 15th in the Big Ten.
Gallagher said his growth entering the 2022 season was a result of focusing on strength. He worked with the NU coaches and showed up to practice every day with the goal of improving “one percent.”
Junior linebacker Greyson Metz said Gallagher played a key role in leading the team through the offseason. Shortly after he finished the 2021 season, Metz said Gallagher was rooting for his teammates to be ready for 2022.
This hard work earned Gallagher the title of captain, an honor voted on by other players. As team leader, Gallagher said he prioritized helping younger teammates and passed on the same advice he was given by older players.
“(I tell them), ‘You have to go out there and do your job,’” Gallagher said. “’You can’t make it bigger than it is. You just have to go out there and do what your coaches tell you, and trust your teammates.’”
As captain, Metz said Gallagher has been a “servant leader.” He is personable and sets an example for his younger teammates in the way he conducts himself every day, Metz said.
Mentoring younger, less experienced players has proven especially important given the injuries to the defense in September. Junior defensive back Garnett Hollis Jr., one of several players who have taken on a larger role in the unit, said Gallagher has been a “true leader.” He is adept at picking up the defense in tough times and cheering them up on the field, Hollis Jr. said.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald called Gallagher a “great football player.” He was especially impressed by Gallagher’s performance on Saturday, saying his dynamic play lived up to the expectations of a team captain.
Buoyed by Saturday’s breakout, Gallagher hopes to keep the momentum going. As NU looks ahead to a tough Big Ten schedule, he has one thing on his mind.
“(I want) to keep helping the team win,” Gallagher said. “Anything I can do to help us win is what I’m focused on.”
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