Football: Godwin Igwebuike’s three interceptions a surprise even to himself


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike turned heads in his first career start, pulling down three interceptions. “I didn’t even see it coming,” Igwebuike said after the game.

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

On Sunday, Sept. 28, senior safety Ibraheim Campbell broke the news to his understudy Godwin Igwebuike. Campbell’s hamstring injury wouldn’t heal in time for the following Saturday’s game against No. 17 Wisconsin, he told Igwebuike, meaning the redshirt freshman would be making his first collegiate start.

Igwebuike, a former four-star recruit from Pickerington, Ohio, had played for the injured Campbell for parts of Northwestern’s wins over Western Illinois and Penn State, but now he would be playing almost every defensive snap against a top-20 opponent.

All week leading up to the Wisconsin game, Igwebuike practiced with the first team and crammed film with other defensive backs, including a supportive Campbell. Still, come Friday night, Igwebuike was nervous.

“It’s not like high school. This is the big stage,” Igwebuike (Ig-weh-BYU-kay) said this week. “One thing I did, I said a little prayer. I knew that I could trust God to go out there and know I can do what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid.”

When the game kicked off, Igwebuike was a precocious fill-in with a cool name (“Godwin” means “friend of God”). Three and a half hours and three interceptions later, Igwebuike was a star.

In the following days he earned acknowledgment as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, Big Ten Freshman of the Week and the national Jim Thorpe Defensive Back of the Week.

“Nobody saw it coming,” Igwebuike said after the game. “I didn’t even see it coming.”

Igwebuike’s first major contribution came on Wisconsin’s second offensive play of the first quarter. Badgers running back Melvin Gordon grabbed a hand-off, dashed outside the hash marks and sprinted 58 yards down the sideline before Igwebuike caught up and nudged him out of bounds.

Six plays later, with Wisconsin at the NU 20-yard line, Badgers quarterback Tanner McEvoy floated a pass off his back foot toward the goal-line. Igwebuike leapt and extended his left arm into the body of the targeted Wisconsin receiver, scooping the ball back into his stomach for a one-handed interception.

“I hovered over the top for a little bit, saw him make his move and pretty much saw it coming,” Igwebuike said. “And once it’s in the air it’s just football from there.”

For the next two and a half quarters, Igwebuike played well, if not spectacularly. He would finish the game with eight tackles, second most on the team, though coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested he made some subtle miscues and “could’ve played better.”

But with 8 minutes and 26 seconds to play in the fourth quarter and Wisconsin threatening NU’s 20-7 lead, Igwebuike struck again.

With the ball at the NU 3-yard line, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave rolled right under pressure and fired an ill-advised bullet intended for a receiver in the back of the end zone. Perfectly positioned for the interception, Igwebuike hardly had to move.

“Godwin’s a really intelligent guy,” junior safety Traveon Henry said Wednesday. “Wisconsin’s a team that does a lot of shifts and motions to get you thinking a lot. And going into the week he knew that, so he prepared for it.”

Igwebuike’s third interception was perhaps his most impressive and certainly his most important.

With Wisconsin down only 6 points with half a minute to play, Igwebuike slipped in front of a receiver around midfield, jumped and snatched a Stave pass for the game-sealing pick.

“I just stepped back a little bit, saw the quarterback reading his man and kind of stared him down,” Igwebuike said. “I was able to break on that one as well. I thought I was going to bat it down, but it went right into my hands.” 

Four days after the game, Igwebuike said he hadn’t quite processed his sudden success. He’d heard from numerous friends and family members from Pickerington, he said, and he figured his mother would be anxious to frame his Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and Freshman of the Week certificates.

Igwebuike said teammates have teased him about his gaudy stat line and the attention it drew.

“You know how it goes,” Igwebuike said, smiling. “Superstar, whatever, whatever.”

The coaching staff is somewhat less impressed. Fitzgerald repeatedly hedged his praise, and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said Igwebuike — who played running back in addition to safety in high school — is still learning his current position.

“He’s gaining more confidence as he plays more,” Hankwitz said. “He did have some mental mistakes, but he made more plays than he had mistakes.”

Campbell is out again this week as NU plays Minnesota, meaning Igwebuike will have the opportunity to follow up his once-in-a-lifetime outing.

His three-interception day poses a tough act to top, especially for a redshirt freshman with one and a half games under his belt. After a week of Twitter shout-outs and interview requests, Igwebuike finds himself a long way from the near-anonymous understudy he was last Friday.

“I’m not going to let any of the outside pressure get to me,” Igwebuike said. “Just go out there and do what I’ve been doing for most of my life, just playing football.”

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