Godwin Igwebuike rose up, contorted his body, reached up and back with one hand, and did what he had been doing all game long. He made a play. The redshirt freshman safety, starting his first college game, made the play, a one handed interception, to seal Northwestern’s upset of No. 17 Wisconsin.
"Once the ball is in the air," Igwebuike said after the game, "it’s just football from there."
And football is exactly what it was. In fact, it was 60 minutes of old school, proper Big Ten football. Everything about it made it so – the cold, the rain, the wind; the power running, the strong defense, and the bad quarterback play.
And perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was that it was in a game like this that Northwestern took down Wisconsin – yes, Wisconsin, the team that is known for winning games the exact same way it lost one today.
"We just went into a 15-round slugfest with arguably one of the most physical teams in the country," Pat Fitzgerald said postgame, and the Wildcats came out victorious.
So if last weekend wasn’t enough proof, this Saturday surely was: Northwestern can now win games in this fashion. Pat Fitzgerald is molding his team to his liking, fitting it to his personality, and the results are finally showing. His enthusiasm and coaching have invigorated a defense that has become one of the best in the Big Ten.
But it’s not just that the defense was fired up. It’s not just that the players embodied their head coach’s mentality. Across the board, this defense is athletic, fast, and just flat out talented.
There are, of course, the usual suspects that make plays. Collin Ellis had a big pass breakup; Ifeadi Odenigbo was immense, pushing Wisconsin offensive linemen back into Tanner McEvoy or Joel Stave on multiple occasions; and Dean Lowry was a presence inside and on the edge.
But it is the supporting cast that makes this defense what it is, and made it what it was Saturday. Max Chapman made a huge play in the first quarter, hitting McEvoy to force an interception; Jimmy Hall was great all around, not only leaping above a Wisconsin receiver for a third quarter interception, but also making plays at the line and in the backfield; and after leaking big plays earlier in the season, both Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris were resolute in coverage.
And then there was Igwebuike. Forced into the spotlight by Ibraheim Campbell’s injury, the freshman had the game of his life. It began early with a first quarter interception in the red zone for which he outfought a challenging Badgers receiver. It then continued in the fourth with a right-place-right-time pick of Stave, and finally with the clinching acrobatic play in the final minute.
Igwebuike became the first Northwestern player since Neil Little in 1973 to record three interceptions in a single game. But the fact that it was his first game as a starter is what’s astounding – even to Igwebuike himself. "Nobody saw it coming," he said following the game. "I didn’t even see it coming."
But it wasn’t just the three picks. It was the way he flew around the field all game. A particular third down stop in the first quarter, on which he tracked down a scrambling McEvoy and bounced him out of bounds two yards short of the sticks, stood out.
Plays like that are emblematic of what this defense has become. The box score will tell you that NU was gashed by Melvin Gordon – and at times it was – but as Fitzgerald likes to say, and said again postgame, "stats are for losers." And this time, he’s right.
Northwestern’s defense won it this game. And based on what it has shown for two straight weeks now, it’s capable of continuing to do just that.