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Big plays, reliable veterans lead crucial bounce-back performance by Northwestern’s defense

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After giving up 71 points in the past two games, the Wildcats defense held Indiana to just 12 on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern’s first two Big Ten victories were all about offense.

The Wildcats somehow turned into a scoring juggernaut against Iowa and Michigan State, putting up 92 combined points to win a pair of shootouts. Those offensive outbursts made it easy to overlook the performances of the defense, which struggled in both games. Northwestern entered its homecoming matchup with Indiana on a two-game winning streak largely because of its offense and in spite of its defense.

In the second half on Saturday, those roles did a 180-degree flip.

With Clayton Thorson and the offense unable to move the ball after halftime, the defense came up with numerous big stops as Northwestern hung on to win, 24-14. The unit came up with two sacks, two interceptions and held the Hoosiers to just 84 yards on the ground.

“We came in with the mindset that we wanted to put a complete defensive game together,” said Anthony Walker Jr. “We took it as a personal challenge to step up no matter what.”

It was by no means a complete, dominant defensive performance. Indiana racked up over 400 yards of offense, routinely picking on Northwestern’s young cornerbacks. But the secondary fixed one of its biggest problems so far this season: It didn’t get beaten deep.

“Our communication was improved in the secondary,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald. “This goes back to the way that they prepared.”

Facing the Big Ten’s second-most prolific passing attack, the Wildcats surrendered just one completion of 20+ yards, a 33-yarder that led to a field goal. In fact, several of Indiana’s long passing attempts turned into highlight-reel turnovers. In the first half, CB Montre Hartage made an incredible diving interception on a deep ball, getting a bit fortunate that Hoosier QB Richard Lagow underthrew his man.

Then, with Indiana trying to rally late in the fourth quarter, safety Kyle Queiro made the catch of the season with a momentum-killing pick.

Not only was Queiro’s interception impressive due to the level of difficulty required, but it was also the third time this season a Northwestern DB has successfully predicted their own interception. Quiero tweeted “Thanks for the INT” late Friday night and deep into Saturday’s game, it happened.

“We’ve talked about basically speaking it into existence,” Queiro said.

The picks were especially huge considering how ineffective the Wildcats’ offense was in the second half. Northwestern picked up just 37 yards and failed to score at all in the final two quarters, giving Indiana plenty of opportunities to mount a comeback.

But the defense wasn’t having any of that.

“We lost momentum in the second half and had to respond a bunch of times defensively to get some big stops,” Fitzgerald said.

The interceptions made the national highlights, but other plays come to mind as well. With Northwestern clinging to a 24-12 lead early in the fourth quarter, Indiana had a 3rd and 9 at the NU 27 yard-line. Lagow dropped back to pass and was crushed from behind by Ifeadi Odenigbo for the DE’s seventh sack in the last three games. The nine-yard loss caused the Hoosiers to have to try a 53-yard field goal, which missed badly.

On Indiana’s next possession, it had a 3rd and 7 near midfield and Lagow was sacked again, this time by Joe Gaziano. Those two plays exemplified one of the biggest themes of the day for the defense: its ability to get off the field by getting stops and third and fourth down. Indiana converted just 5-of-19 third down attempts and 3-of-6 fourth downs.

Beyond the big plays, perhaps the most important aspect of Northwestern’s stifling defensive performance was the play of its stars, Anthony Walker Jr. and Godwin Igwebuike. Walker played one of his best games of the year, leading the team with 11 tackles and two tackles for loss, and Igwebuike was all over the place with 8 tackles and a huge fourth-down pass breakup in the third quarter.

“Especially with the way we’ve played defensively in a handful of games this year, it’s great to have two of your best players play their best game,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve been trying to do a little bit too much, and it looked like today they just did their jobs.”

On Saturday, Northwestern’s defense relied on its veterans leaders, along with some timely big plays, and put together its best game of the season.