Football: Tillman inspires strong performance from Northwestern secondary against Michigan State


Meghan White/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern safety Jared Carpenter (27) breaks up Michigan State’s fourth-down pass at the end of the game. With the incompletion, the Wildcats sealed their 23-20 win.

Dan Ryan, Sports Editor

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Northwestern’s secondary needed some inspiration after last Saturday’s loss to Michigan. And it got it from an unlikely source.

Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman provided a blueprint for success to the much-maligned unit with his ball-hawking ways in the past few weeks. Tillman, not known throughout most of his career as a speedy cover corner, has nonetheless proven himself to be a difference maker, forcing a dazzling seven fumbles so far this season.

“Everybody in the country on defense has kind of been invigorated by Peanut Tillman,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We showed a bunch of those plays a couple weeks ago during our bye week that he made.”

The Wildcats’ secondary followed Tillman’s lead against Michigan State on Saturday.

NU’s defense forced four turnovers, two fumbles and two interceptions against the Spartans, and the mindset of, “See ball, attack ball,” was obvious throughout the game. On most plays, the Cats’ defenders wrapped up the ball carrier and attempted to rip or punch the ball out.

Fitzgerald joked that Tillman helped sharpen his players’ focus on forcing turnovers in a way he could not.

“Midway through the season, as a coach, you kind of become like Charlie Brown’s teacher,” Fitzgerald said. “You know, ‘Wah, wah, wah, wah.’ They’re not hearing what you’re saying … When you see something like (what Tillman did) a couple weeks ago, it reinforced our belief you have to go for the ball to win.”

Perhaps the best performance out of the secondary came from a player who caught criticism for his showing against Michigan. Safety Ibraheim Campbell recorded only three tackles during last week’s game and blew coverages at some key points but performed far better in Saturday’s contest.

Against the Spartans, Campbell recorded 11 tackles — including an assist on a tackle for a loss — a forced fumble, and two pass deflections. The sophomore also contributed a quarterback hit, which led to an interception and was a major driving force behind the secondary’s performance.

Fitzgerald called Campbell’s performance Saturday a “great bounce back” after the Michigan loss.

“Ibraheim responded greatly,” senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “He had a tough game last week. I did, too. A lot of people did. He came back this week focused and ready to play.”

Fittingly, the Cats’ final strip ended the game. Michigan State faced a fourth and long deep in their own territory when quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw over the middle to tight end Dion Sims, who appeared to have caught the ball for a first down. Senior safety Jared Carpenter flew to the ball, however, and managed to punch the ball out of Sims’ hands, sealing the Cats’ win.

“We knew they had no timeouts, so my mindset was, ‘First get him down in bounds,’ of course,” Carpenter said. “And just keep fighting, no matter what. The worst that could happen is that you tackle him, and the best that could happen is that you get the ball out.”

At the end of the day, Carpenter credited watching tape of Tillman’s game-changing performances with helping fire up the secondary, a fact evidenced by the final stat sheet.

“It just rings in your head when you see stuff like that,” Carpenter said. “When you see the influence it can have on a game. You just want to do the same thing out there.”