Football: With mix of talents, Wildcat defensive line succeeds by committee


Daily file photo by Brian Lee

Sophomore defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo is part of a versatile Northwestern defensive line that has thrived both in pass-rushing and against the run in recent weeks.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor


It isn’t easy being a defensive lineman in the Big Ten.

Slippery quarterbacks, bruising running backs and massive offensive lineman all stand in the way of a defensive end or tackle doing his job. Northwestern’s Dean Lowry has been at it for three years, but the veteran is unfazed by the hurdles that lay between him and a successful stop.

“It’s definitely tough, they’re all very physical,” the junior defensive end said. “In practice we stress technique and making sure we stay low and come off the ball well. If we do what we do, which is play with great technique … we can handle any line in the conference.”

Things seem all the more daunting for true freshman Xavier Washington. The defensive end is listed at a scant 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, which means most of the lineman he’s trying to get around have at least 50 pounds on him. Even some quarterbacks could claim some size over the pass-rush specialist.

“(My size) challenges me to use other assets,” Washington said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now, just find different ways to beat people, because I know I don’t have the same weight as everybody else, but I have explosiveness and speed.”

The defensive line, perceived as a potential weakness heading into the season because of the loss of All-Big Ten defensive end Tyler Scott to the NFL and senior defensive tackle Sean McEvilly to injury, has persevered by leaning on its depth, mixing size with speed and seasoning with inexperience.

As a group, the line helped sack Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg four times and held Minnesota’s David Cobb to 3.2 yards per carry. Next on the docket: Ameer Abdullah.

Nebraska’s running back is widely considered the best in the Big Ten after Heisman hopeful Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin. Through six games this season, Abdullah has already racked up an impressive 878 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald indicated during practice this week that, once again, a good defensive line rotation would be vital in countering the opponent’s strong rushing attack.

“We’ve got to fit things right in the front seven,” he said. “(The defensive line) has practiced really well for two days, so hopefully they’ll continue it through tomorrow and through the weekend.”

Slowing down Abdullah — because you can’t truly stop him — is a tall order, and with younger players like Washington in the mix, the leadership of veterans such as Lowry and senior defensive tackle Chance Carter is even more important.

“We’re definitely trying to be leaders to the younger guys,” Lowry said. “It’s just about coming together, having great chemistry and having great cohesiveness, and I think that we’re getting there.”

That mentorship is especially important when it comes to one of a defensive lineman’s most difficult tasks: recognizing a play-action pass. It was on these fake runs that Minnesota was able to pick up big chunks of yardage a week ago.

“(It’s) just trying to slow down and think about everything that’s going on every play,” Washington said of his biggest challenge. “It’s pretty tough, but you have to stay on top of it.”

For Lowry, experience was the best remedy.

“It comes with practice and playing through spring ball,” he said. “You just have to get used to it … and hopefully when you get out there it’s natural.”

But nobody has a surefire answer for how to handle a player as talented as Abdullah.

“We’ve played three good backs the past three weeks,” Carter said. “(Abdullah) can make you miss. … It’s going to be hard to tackle the little guy, he’s pretty good.”

It’s sure to be a back-and-forth battle in the trenches all day long, but fans can expect a little bit of flair when the Wildcats inevitably break through for a big sack or tackle for loss.

“I know (sophomore defensive end) Ifeadi (Odenigbo) is really big on sack celebrations,” Lowry said. “We always enjoy having celebrations … having fun out there, making plays and just doing it together.”

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