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Led by Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern defensive line steps up

The Hawkeyes couldn’t do anything on the ground against Northwestern’s front four, a unit that had been gashed by Nebraska.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Ifeadi Odenigbo woke up “pissed off.”

It wasn’t that his bed was uncomfortable.

It wasn’t that he struggled to sleep before his final road opener as a college player.

It wasn’t that a teammate or a coach had made him mad.

He was pissed off at himself.

A fifth-year senior, Odenigbo had been one of the most underwhelming players for the Wildcats through four weeks of the season, registering just seven total tackles and one measly sack. He had been demoted to the bench, replaced by C.J. Robbins. His team was struggling, and he was part of the reason why.

Oh, what a difference one afternoon can make.

Odenigbo put together the most impressive effort of any defensive player this season for the Wildcats, registering four sacks, a forced fumble and five total tackles. And more importantly, his Wildcats got a vital victory.

“It was something special today,” Odenigbo said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And he’s correct. He’s never seen a Northwestern victory in Iowa City; the last one for the Wildcats was in 2009.

A huge part of the win was Northwestern’s ability to stop the run and get to C.J. Beathard. We’ll explore the latter of those first. Led by Odenigbo’s four sacks, the Wildcats registered six in total, the most since six against Wisconsin last year.

Ifeadi Odenigbo

Four sacks will earn you the Big Ten co-defensive player of the week as well as a lovely highlight film:

This is the Ifeadi Odenigbo everyone had envisioned when he chose the Wildcats way back in early 2012 as one of the top recruits in the nation.

The first sack of the montage is simply a matter of Odenigbo’s motor not stopping. He’s walled off decently at first, but still gets decent penetration, forcing Beathard to step up. After he spins off of Cole Croston (No. 64), Odenigbo’s immense physical skill allows him to track down Beathard, who had stepped up in the pocket. There’s not much to analyze here other than the effort level you see from Northwestern’s senior sack specialist.

The second sack, though, is Odenigbo at his best. He just bullies Croston, walking him right into Beathard’s lap.

This requires a tremendous amount of strength, both from the upper body and lower body. Croston, a senior with 34 games under his belt as a Hawkeye, is 307 pounds; he’s not going to be moved easily by simple arm strength. This requires major drive from the legs, an area that Odenigbo focused on almost exclusively this summer as he got stronger.

It’s not something he could have done last year. Neither is this sack, Ifeadi’s third of the game, which was a near carbon copy of the second (though it probably featured a facemask on the end).

From a pure strength standpoint, theses are two utter dominations of a large, experienced Hawkeye offensive lineman. Odenigbo’s always had the speed to beat linemen off the edge and the upper-body strength to bat away opponents’ flailing hands once he’s by them. But this level of lower body strength hasn’t been there. Until he played pissed off on Saturday and dominated.

On his fourth and final sack of the afternoon, Croston was so concerned with getting beat with strength that he shaded to the inside and had no chance when Odenigbo went with the speed rush.

Over the summer, Odenigbo had talked about becoming a more complete pass rusher, setting up the bull rush by using his speed early:

“I’ve always kind of been that speed rush guy, but I kind of want to switch up the game, ‘cause at times when you pass rush, it’s like a basketball game. The offensive tackle is like ‘all right he likes to do the speed rush move,’ so I’ll cross it up on him and go speed to power.”

But having already succeeded with the bull rush twice, he was actually able to do the opposite of what he told me in the summer: set up the speed — his greatest asset — with his power.

“That was hands down my favorite sack there,” he said post-game. “Beating a guy clean off the edge and blind-siding the quarterback is great.”

One of the keys for Odenigbo, though, was that he was put in a position to succeed by his teammates on first and second down. Relegated to essentially a third down pass rush specialist, the only way he’ll get consistent playing time is if his fellow defenders can be successful on first and second downs, allowing him to come in on third and pin his ears back and rush the passer. His four sacks on Saturday came on 3rd and 8, 3rd and 3, 3rd and 6, and 3rd and 7.

“It’s critically important,” Fitzgerald said of early-down defense. “You gotta avoid it as an offense and you gotta put people in it defensively. You’re able to do a lot coverage-wise and concept-wise when you’re in 3rd and long... That was a byproduct of the way we played on first and second down.”

The way Northwestern played on first and second down was key on Saturday, and much of that can be attributed to the front four. Before Saturday’s contest at Kinnick, only three defensive linemen had registered at least five tackles in a game: Robbins against Illinois St. (5), Xavier Washington against Duke (5) and Tyler Lancaster against Nebraska (6). Against Iowa alone, the Wildcat defensive linemen matched that total, with Odenigbo (5), Robbins (5) and Washington (5) all recording a handful.

Iowa only recorded 79 yards on the ground. The much-maligned defensive line stepped up even more than the most optimistic fans could have hoped, allowing the team’s best pass rusher to get on the field often and do what he does best.

He was pissed when he arrived.

He left happy.

So did everyone else heading back to Evanston.