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Veteran leaders, young defensive backs step up for Northwestern’s defense in victory

The unit bent but rarely broke against a solid offense

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Walker admitted he didn’t take the best angle to the quarterback.

With his team in the red zone on the first possession of the second half, Duke QB Daniel Jones kept the ball on a read option and looked to run. Walker flew around the edge toward him, but Jones cut inside and appeared to have plenty of room to pick up a big chunk of yards. At least it seemed that way until Walker, in one motion, stuck out his right arm, punched the ball out and scooped it up for an important turnover.

“I came too far up the field, gave the quarterback an inside lane,” Walker said. “But I was able to get my hand on the ball and make a big play for our team. It was a great momentum shift for us.”

The play, which came with the game tied at 7-7, was important for a couple of reasons. It was one of several second-half stops by an injury-ravaged Northwestern defense that helped lead the Wildcats to a 24-13 victory, their first of the season. And perhaps more importantly, it was the moment that signaled that Anthony Walker, “The Franchise,” was back.

“Anthony dealt with some injury stuff in camp and he missed about two weeks,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “He’s finally getting back into game shape, and I think that’s starting to show.”

After recording just 14 tackles and one pass breakup in Northwestern’s two losses, Walker appeared to be near 100% as he stuffed the stat sheet on Saturday night. The star linebacker finished with five tackles, two for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry in addition to the fumble he forced and recovered.

Walker wasn’t the only defensive player to come up clutch for Northwestern. Safety Godwin Igwebuike created an equally important turnover of his own, picking off Jones with Duke driving late in the first quarter and the Wildcats up a touchdown.

“We ran that exact play in practice,” Igwebuike said. “I knew it was coming, ran underneath [the route], and mwah.”

Igwebuike’s self-predicted interception was his first in nearly two years and came in a game where Northwestern needed him to step up. Heading into the season, his partners in the secondary were Matthew Harris, Keith Watkins II and Kyle Queiro, all of whom are upperclassmen. On Saturday, Igwebuike was playing with two sophomores and a freshman.

Igwebuike, a junior, made a major impact with both his production, notching six tackles and two pass breakups to go along with the pick, and his leadership in getting the young backups ready to play in primetime.

“I went back to when I was a redshirt freshman making my first career start,” Igwebuike said. “I remember Coach Brown telling me, ‘you know, it’s just football, you’ve been doing this all your life,’ and that’s kind of the message I had for the boys, it’s just football. You have the talent, you’re here for a reason. You’ve been grinding with us this whole time, now you’re here. Relax, go out there and play how you know you can, and that’s exactly what they did.”

The trio of Montre Hartage, Trae Williams and Jared McGee, combined for 20 tackles and five pass breakups. All three were crucially important in holding Jones to 15-of-33 passing in the second half. As the game drew on, they gradually looked more and more comfortable.

“Really proud of those young guys in the secondary,” Fitzgerald said. “They were assaulted, attacked, and I thought they stepped up and played very well.”

As a whole, Northwestern’s defense showed signs of returning to its 2015 form. After giving up five scoring drives in the opener and three in Week 2, the Wildcats held Duke to just two, one of which came in garbage time late in the fourth quarter.

With Northwestern entering Big Ten play and set to face more talented offenses, it has to be reassuring for Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to know that their stars are starting to round into form and that the secondary has the depth to survive if the starters continue to miss time.

On Saturday, the defense got back to doing what made it so successful a season ago, and it translated into a win.

“I feel like we were able to make some plays that we left out there the last two games,” Igwebuike said. “We focused on just letting loose, giving it everything we’ve got, playing with passion and having fun again.”