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Anthony Walker Jr., Godwin Igwebuike lead Northwestern’s stifling defense in Pinstripe Bowl win

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Stout in the redzone, the Wildcats kept the Panthers under wraps in 31-24 win.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- Godwin Igwebuike didn’t see it happen.

The play he saw ended in a Pittsburgh touchdown, a touchdown, that, given his assignment on this particular play, would have been his responsibility.

“I thought my man had the ball and he scored,” Igwebuike said, “so I was pretty upset.”

Pitt’s prolific offense is known for its trickery and motion. Its offense thrives on creating space and capitalizing on scrambling defenses. And the Panthers had Northwestern’s star safety scrambling.

Already up 3-0 in the first quarter, Pitt found itself facing a fourth-and-inches inside of its own 1-yard line. With one of the nation’s leading power runners in James Conner in the backfield, head coach Pat Narduzzi made the call to try to capitalize early.

As Igwebuike did all he could to corral Pitt decoy Qadree Ollison on the perimeter with two lead blockers out in front of him, his defensive partner Anthony Walker, Jr. was taking care of his end in the middle of the field.

“We knew they were going to give us some inside zone action,” Walker said. “I was able to get freed up and run through my gap. [Conner] went over the top and I was able to grab his legs.”

As Walker, along with fellow linebacker Nathan Fox and lineman Tyler Lancaster, combined to stuff Conner’s attempt, Igwebuike said he heard Northwestern’s crowd “getting hype” at Yankee Stadium.

He turned to look back, saw what happened, and said, “Let’s go.”

“Plays like that make championship teams,” he added. “We stepped up and made that play and set the momentum for the rest of the game.”

While the Pinstripe Bowl wasn’t a championship game per say, Northwestern saved some of its best defensive performances for its 31-24 upset over No. 23 Pitt. And it was the team’s two redshirt junior defensive standouts who led the charge.

Early in the second quarter, Igwebuike stopped another Pitt drive inside Northwestern’s 10-yard line with an interception to keep his team ahead 7-3. Then, in the fourth quarter, it was Walker who forced a fumble to set Northwestern’s offense up in Pittsburgh territory. The short drive resulted in a Jack Mitchell field goal that put the Wildcats up 31-24. Those were just two of the four turnovers Northwestern forced on the afternoon

“We just felt like we had to fit things properly, and we couldn't give them anything cheap,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We created turnovers. That was huge. I mean, that was the difference in the game, right? I mean, you got a one-score game. We had two interceptions basically at the goal line, right, if my recollection is correct. Those are huge points off the board.”

Northwestern held Pitt, the top team nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (82.69 percent), to just two red zone touchdowns in seven trips. Along with a field goal, those three red zone scores equaled the number of red zone turnovers Pitt committed.

“We take a lot of pride in being a defense that stops teams in the red zone,” Igwebuike said. “That’s one of the hardest things to do, especially with a high-powered offense like Pitt’s. Getting those stops, it gets us a lot of momentum, a lot of swag. It helps the offense get their swag. It’s like a snowball effect.”

Going back to the first-quarter goal line stand, Northwestern’s offense responded to that stop with a 99-yard drive of its own, creating, according to Narduzzi, a 14-point swing to put the Wildcats ahead 7-3.

“They had 32 days to get a game plan going,” Narduzzi said of Northwestern’s coaching staff. “You better be able to line-up and pound people. We weren't able to do that.”

It wasn’t always that way for Northwestern’s defense in 2016. Early in the season, it was inconsistent play from its two stars -- Walker and Igwebuike — that, in part, plagued a talented defense. But as the year wore on, both players got healthier and reemerged as premier defenders in the Big Ten. Together, they earned All-Big Ten second team recognition by the conferences’ coaches.

But now, as the page turns on the 2016 season, they both have choices to make about their futures.

Hours before the game Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein reported that both Walker and Igwebuike will receive feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board over the coming weeks. Basically, the board grades players as first round, second round or neither prospects. According to a Greenstein, a source expects both players to receive grades of “neither” from the evaluation.

Following last season, one in which both players (but especially Walker) emerged on the national scene, Fitzgerald sat down with both players to discuss their football-playing futures. Collectively, they decided to engage in what Fitzgerald called “draft class evaluation.”

“Instead of letting the NFL know [about your interest] in December,” Fitzgerald said he explained to the players, “let’s let them know now that we want an evaluation because you’ll get a true evaluation on where you’re at and we’ll work forward from that.

“I gladly answered all questions on Godwin and on Anthony [from NFL personnel], not for me but for them and for their families to get them all the information they needed to make the best educated decision they can,” he added.

The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft is Jan. 16.

Walker, a higher-rated prospect than Igwebuike, seems the more likely of the two to forgo his fifth year. Though he was non-committal following the game, his teammate, star wide receiver Austin Carr, followed his description of his planned training timeline for the NFL Draft by turning to Walker and saying, “I’m sure it’ll be the same timeline for you. Er, I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“I’m still thinking it over,” Walker said. “It’s not going to be a decision that’s made today or tomorrow, but I’ll take some time and sit down and get all the information I need. Then I’ll make a decision and go from there.”

As opposed to Walker’s business-like answer, Igwebuike, as is often the case, was a bit more theatrical in describing his future in football.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the win right now and just take it all in, man,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear. “For now, I’m just soaking it all in.”