Football: Igwebuike, Jackson lead Northwestern over No. 17 Wisconsin


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike was Saturday’s star, intercepting three Wisconsin passes, including two in the fourth quarter.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern’s mid-season renaissance continues.

In their conference home opener, the Wildcats (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) stretched their win streak to three with an upset victory over No. 17 Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1). The win comes almost a year after a deflating loss to the Badgers that sent last year’s team into a five-game tailspin and on the heels of last week’s impressive road win over Penn State.

“A great team win,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They’re physical, they have an identity, but we found a way to get the job done.”

The star of the game was redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike. Filling in for injured senior Ibraheim Campbell, Igwebuike grabbed three interceptions to lead the defense, including a pick in the final minute to seal the game.

“I knew it was going to be my time to step up,” Igwebuike said. “I prepared like I’ve never prepared before and it paid off.”

Even in victory, NU struggled to contain Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Arguably the nation’s best running back, he gashed the Cats’ defense for 265 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries, including runs of 58 and 61 yards.

But Gordon was brought down in the backfield on several key plays to force the Badgers into passing situations, and his usual change-of-pace back-up Corey Clement was limited to just 6 carries and 23 yards.

Wisconsin starting quarterback Tanner McEvoy was entirely ineffective, serving as the catalyst for NU’s success in the first half. He completed just four of 10 passes for 24 yards and an interception before being pulled late in the second quarter for backup Joel Stave.

Stave wasn’t much of an improvement in the second half, throwing three interceptions and going eight-of-19 for 114 yards and a touchdown. He had a couple of chances deep with receivers facing single coverage, but both were broken up on athletic plays by starting cornerbacks junior Nick VanHoose and sophomore Matthew Harris, respectively.

The defensive line continued its strong play from a week ago, sacking the quarterback only once but consistently generating pressure. Sophomore defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo stuck out, pushing Badgers right tackle Rob Havenstein backwards into Stave on the play that Stave threw his first interception.

“I ran right up my guy and saw he was losing ground,” Odenigbo said of the play. “Whenever you see the ball released you put your hands up, and fortunately I got to the ball.”

That pick belonged to senior linebacker Jimmy Hall, with the others being snagged by Igwebuike. Excelling in pass coverage, Igwebuike also did a good job bringing down Gordon when he broke into the secondary, finishing the game with eight tackles.

“We held them to 14 points, that’s why stats are for losers,” Fitzgerald said to sum up the performance of the defense. “As long as the Cats are plus-one, the Cats win.”

Offensively for NU, the day belonged to freshman running back Justin Jackson. With backup freshman Solomon Vault inactive, Jackson shouldered the load and carried an impressive 33 times for 162 yards.

“I feel pretty crappy,” Jackson said after the game about the heavy duty, “but we won so that’s all that matters.”

He displayed great vision and burst all day and did an excellent job of running through contact. His endurance was vital in closing out the game during the fourth quarter.

“His number was called,” Fitzgerald said, “and he has a really great feel for what we’re trying to do. … (Our running backs) are really getting better.”

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian posted a poor stat line, completing 15 of his 29 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown, but did not turn the ball over and made some impressive throws in key situations.

And, for the first time all year, Siemian kept the ball on a read-option play and picked up seven yards with his legs.

The Cats took advantage of some aggressive and creative play calls, including two fourth-down conversions on their second quarter touchdown drive. The highlight was a reverse to junior wide receiver Miles Shuler, which gave NU a quick 16-yard touchdown after Stave’s first interception.

Quietly, junior punter Chris Gradone had another great game by landing five of his seven punts inside the 20-yard line, including three inside the 10-yard line during the first half.

The win is the Cats’ first over a ranked opponent at home since Nov. 13, 2010 against Iowa and resulted in the student section storming the field.

NU remains tied for first in the Big Ten West and now possesses a key tie-breaker in the race to the conference championship game.

“Every game counts,” Fitzgerald said. “Head-to-head is critically important, but they all count. … We’re just focused on us right now.”

Correction: A previous version misstated Justin Jackson’s rushing yardage. He ran for 162 yards. The Daily regrets the error.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote
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