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Football: Godwin Igwebuike to return for senior season

by Tim Balk 0 Comments
Football: Godwin Igwebuike to return for senior season
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

Godwin Igwebuike will return to lead the Northwestern defensive backfield again in 2017, the junior safety revealed over social media Sunday, dispelling any notion that the squad’s leading tackler might follow fellow junior Anthony Walker to the 2017 NFL Draft.

Igwebuike announced his decision with an Instagram post and a Tweet. He joins junior running back Justin Jackson, who has also said he will return for his final year of eligibility in spite of NFL prospects.

Igwebuike had two interceptions and 108 tackles this fall, leading the back end of an NU defense that allowed just 13 touchdown passes. His return will bolster a team that expects to return most of its starters.

Football: Carr, Walker, Igwebuike eye NFL future; Jackson says he’s staying

by Bobby Pillote 0 Comments
Football: Carr, Walker, Igwebuike eye NFL future; Jackson says he’s staying
(Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer)

With a bowl victory in hand, some Northwestern players are looking into the next step of their football careers.

Senior receiver Austin Carr finished his year with a program single season record 1247 yards receiving and will begin his preparation for the pros right away, he said. Carr has already accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, a postseason showcase to be played Jan. 21.

“The NFL has always been a dream of mine,” Carr said. “Hopefully I’m going to be drafted, God willing.”

Juniors Godwin Igwebuike and Anthony Walker have a year of college eligibility remaining and face the decision of whether to leave school early. Each will receive feedback about their pro prospects from the NFL draft advisory board, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune, though neither has made a final decision.

“I’m still thinking it over,” Walker said. “It’s not going to be a decision that’s made today or tomorrow, so I’m going to take some time, sit down and get all the information that I need.”

Despite an excellent season of his own, junior running back Justin Jackson denied rumors he would be leaving school early, saying he intends to finish his degree. Jackson has never redshirted and has been at NU for just three years; Igwebuike and Walker each redshirted their first season and have been at NU four years.

The deadline to declare for the 2017 NFL draft is Jan. 16.

Ifeadi Odenigbo named First-Team All-Big Ten; Four others earn honors

Ifeadi Odenigbo named First-Team All-Big Ten; Four others earn honors
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

Senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo was named to the First-Team All-Big Ten roster by the media, the conference announced.

Odenigbo led the conference with 10 sacks in 2016, pushing him to second in program history with 23.5 career sacks. His season was punctuated by a four-sack performance against Iowa in October, a Northwestern single-game record.

The D-Lineman also picked up a Second-Team nomination by the conference’s coaches.

Four other Wildcats also earned All-Big Ten honors: junior safety Godwin Igwebuike, junior linebacker Anthony Walker, junior kick returner Solomon Vault and sophomore cornerback Montre Hartage.

Igwebuike and Walker were named Second-Team by coaches and Third-Team by media. Igwebuike led Big Ten defensive backs with 101 tackles, while Walker averaged 9.4 tackles over his last eight games after sustaining an injury during training camp.

Vault was named to the Third-Team by the media. The junior, who already holds the program record for kick/punt return touchdowns, recorded his fifth career return TD against Michigan State in October.

Hartage earned an honorable mention as selected by media. The sophomore led NU with five interceptions and nine pass breakups.

Football: Kyle Queiro calls his shot

by Tim Balk 0 Comments

First it was junior safety Godwin Igwebuike, tweeting “Thanks for the int,” before the Duke game in September and following through with an interception.

Then it was sophomore safety Jared McGee, taking to Instagram to call his shot before the Michigan State game and then picking off Spartan quarterback Tyler O’Connor in the fourth quarter.

This week against Indiana, junior Kyle Queiro is trying his luck. Last night, the safety tweeted “Thanks for the INT.” Queiro is wearing a cast on his left hand today, which might make keeping the streak alive more difficult.

UPDATE (2:20 p.m.): Kyle Queiro’s tweet seems to have worked. In the fourth quarter, the safety leapt up with one hand and picked off a pass from Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow. Check out the video below.

Rapid Reaction: Northwestern 24, Duke 13

by Tim Balk 0 Comments
Rapid Reaction: Northwestern 24, Duke 13
(Leeks Lim/The Daily Northwestern)

The nightmare is over.

After opening the season with a pair of unexpected, narrow losses, NU rebounded under the lights Saturday against Duke, winning 24-13 at Ryan Field.

The Cats benefited from an improved performance from its offensive line, which opened up enough holes to allow junior running back Justin Jackson to carve out 94 rushing yards, and provided solid pass protection for sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who set a career-high with 320 passing yards.

The Cats set the tone for the win with a quick 10-play, 75 yard drive to open the game. Thorson ended the drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to junior superback Garrett Dickerson. After the first drive, though, the Cats’ offense stalled for the remainder of the half, with a late drive ending in a missed 34-yard field goal. The Cats headed to the locker room locked in a 7-7 tie.

Duke threatened to score on its opening drive of the second half, but an Anthony Walker forced fumble snuffed out the drive at NU’s 21 yard line.

Later in the quarter, a botched punt snap gave the Cats offense the ball at the 44-yard line. NU struck on one play as Clayton Thorson connected with junior Solomon Vault for a 44-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cats a 14-7 lead they would not surrender.

NU extended its lead to 17-7 with a 40-yard field goal from Jack Mitchell with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.

Clayton Thorson connected with senior Austin Carr for a 58-yard touchdown pass with 4:56 left in the contest, further padding the Cats’ lead. Carr finished with six catches for a career-high 135 yards.

Duke would add a touchdown in garbage time on a one-yard run from Shaun Wilson, but the Blue Devils missed the extra point, giving the game its final score.

NU finishes its three game non-conference having won just one of its three contests before Big Ten play.

Northwestern stats to know: 

  • Justin Jackson: 28 carries for 94 rushing yards; 3.4 yards per carry.
  • Clayton Thorson: 18-of-39, career-high 320 passing yards. Tied a career-high with three passing TDs. Threw two interceptions.
  • Austin Carr: 58-yard touchdown catch-and-run, career-high 135 receiving yards
  • Anthony Walker: Forced/recovered fumble
  • Godwin Igwebuike: First interception since 2014 Wisconsin game

Duke stats to know:

  • QB Daniel Jones: 27-for-48 with 279 passing yards
  • RB Jela Duncan: 53 rushing yards on 11 carres with 1 touchdown

Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 3

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 3
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Duke Blue Devils.

1. Will NU reach double-digit points?

Tim Balk (Half-full): Duke’s defense is respectable. And NU’s offense is scuffling beyond belief. But I still cannot see the Cats failing to reach 10 points again after scoring just seven against Illinois State.

For one, NU is due to get some points out of its defense and special teams. The Cats were often able to make up for poor offensive production with defensive scores and big plays in the return game last year. In their 19-10 win at Duke, Solomon Vault returned a kickoff for a touchdown and a Godwin Igwebuike fumble recovery set up the offense for an easy field goal. NU’s 19 points came in spite of one of the worst starts of Clayton Thorson’s career. It was a familiar theme throughout the 2015 season. This fall, the Cats’ defense has yet find the end zone and has made few big plays. It’s about time that changes.

Plus, NU’s offense is equally due to find something resembling a rhythm. After the ill-advised air attack backfired against Illinois State, look for NU to find some success with its bread and butter — the run game — against a Duke team that surrendered 239 yards on the ground last week against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons managed to score 24 against Duke. It’s not too much to expect NU to at least reach 10.

Max Gelman (Half-empty): The Wildcats are coming off a week in which they scored just seven points against an FCS defense and have only scored 28 points through their first two weeks. I find it hard to foresee a situation where NU manages to score more than 10 points.

While the special teams unit may be “due” to score some points, let’s not forget it also seems to hurt the Cats’ chances at scoring quite regularly. Kicker Jack Mitchell missed another field goal against the Redbirds last week and coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed extremely reluctant to try another field goal following the miss. If the Cats can’t kick, their drives will continue to stall around their opponents’ 35-40 yard lines.

But the biggest problem is NU’s offensive line — it’s a mess. Thorson was forced to throw 41 times against Illinois State, a career high, because the line couldn’t open any lanes for running back Justin Jackson (who is battling an injury). Until the O-Line improves, it will be extremely difficult for the Cats to put up 10 points.

2. Will the Cats keep Duke quarterback Daniel Jones to under 250 passing yards?

Gelman (Half-empty): Right now, the Cats’ secondary is a major concern. Starting cornerbacks Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II are out, as well as safety Kyle Queiro, whose name popped up on the injury report out of nowhere.

Igwebuike is the only starter still healthy at this point. That leaves the rest of the secondary to be comprised of sophomore corner Montre Hartage, whose only two starts came in the first two weeks of this season filling in for Watkins II, redshirt freshman corner Trae Williams, who has never started a game before, and sophomore safety Jared McGee. The situation is so dire, that third-string quarterback and baseball pitcher Dan Kubiuk was taking reps at corner in practice this week.

What’s surprising about Duke is that Jones, as their backup quarterback, threw for 332 passing yards last week. Although that was against a bad Wake Forest team, it’s still cause for concern. The Cats’ secondary is at DEFCON 1 with all the injuries.

Balk (Half-full): Yes, with three out of its four projected opening week defensive back starters sidelined by injuries, the NU defensive secondary has to be a cause for concern at the moment. But, there’s plenty of reason to think NU will keep Duke to fewer than 250 passing yards. NU is giving up just a touch over 250 passing yards per game through two contests, but those numbers are inflated due to the fact that opponents have had far too many opportunities to sling it.

Opponents have dominated possession because of NU’s offensive trials and the lack of big defensive plays. So, naturally, they’ve picked up tons of yards. But the Cats’ front seven seemed to be finding its legs last week, even as the offense struggled through a nightmare. The progress is likely to continue against a Duke team with a subpar offensive line and a freshman quarterback.

Look for a strong performance from NU’s defensive line to keep Duke’s pass attack in check.

3. Over/Under 4.5 freshmen will trip while running onto the field?

Balk (Half-full): Obviously, you have to go under on this one. As far as I can recall, not a single freshmen tripped last year. The Class of 2019 was smooth and poised under pressure. And each class is supposed to be better, brighter (more athletic?) than the last, right?

Gelman (Half-empty): Almost everything else has gone wrong so far this year for the Cats, so why wouldn’t that extend to the Wildcat Welcome Dash? Under the bright lights of primetime, there will definitely be some jitters Saturday night. I can see about a dozen unlucky new students taking a fall while the Ryan Field crowd tries to hold in its laughter.

Through the Tape: Wildcats struggle for short-yardage stops against Western Michigan

Through the Tape: Wildcats struggle for short-yardage stops against Western Michigan
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

Coming from a traditionally ground-and-pound conference, Northwestern fans would be forgiven for wondering which team on the field Saturday was the true representative from the Big Ten — because in a lot of ways, Western Michigan looked the part.

The Broncos held the ball for more than 39 minutes and ran more than 30 more plays than the Wildcats did. And while the Western Michigan offense wasn’t gashing the NU defense in its time on the field — the Broncos averaged just 5.0 yards per play on the game — the Cats’ inability to produce short-yardage stops allowed Western Michigan to control the flow of the game.

On third- and fourth-downs with less than two yards to go, the Broncos converted seven of eight attempts, all on the ground. In the process, they exposed a defensive weakness for NU that could become a bigger story against the bruising rushing offenses of the Big Ten.

The first play highlighted here happened in the second quarter, with Western Michigan sitting at its 44-yard line and in the midst of a 19-play, 10-minute drive that would end in a field goal. The Broncos went with a power look on the play, using a fullback and extra blockers on the line.

Redshirt freshman lineman Joe Gaziano (No. 97) is the strong-side defensive end on this play and gets stymied by a double team, while sophomore linebacker Nate Hall (No. 32) gets pushed several yards back by Western Michigan’s motioning tight end to open a hole for Jamauri Bogan to hit for the first down. With a few of his teammates beat at the line, All-American linebacker Anthony Walker (No. 1) gets caught in the fray around him and is unable to flow to the gap and make the play at the line of scrimmage.

This next play happened in the third quarter, with Western Michigan going with the power look again while sitting at the Cats’ 33-yard line and working on another long drive that would end in a field goal.

On the spot again as the strong-side end, Gaziano gets blown away from the point of attack by a double team right at the snap. Meanwhile, Walker has clean space in front of him but misreads the play as going outside, stepping out of his gap only to be sealed by a block from Western Michigan’s fullback. Bogan bursts through the ensuing crease to easily get the first down.

The Broncos went back to the same play on the goal line in the fourth quarter to score what would end up the game-winning touchdown.

This time, it was the big senior lineman C.J. Robbins (No. 90), who has a good 40 lbs. on Gaziano, lined up as the strong-side defensive end and getting pushed off the spot. Junior safety Godwin Igwebuike (No. 16) fills the gap and has a chance to make the stop at the line, but he whiffs in the hole. Senior linebacker Jaylen Prater (No. 51) and Walker then combine to hit Bogan past the line of scrimmage, but they aren’t able to keep Bogan from powering into the end zone.

The common thread was the Cats’ inability to win at the line of scrimmage in these short-yardage situations, a troubling sign for a team attempting to replace defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson from a season ago. Penetration from the defensive line is the key to stopping run plays before they start, and too often throughout the day NU got no push from its linemen at the point of attack. With physical power-running teams like Wisconsin and Iowa looming on the schedule, the Cats will need some players to emerge on the line as impact players if they want to hold up.

Without penetration up front, NU’s second level defenders needed to be perfect time and again to stop Western Michigan, and mistakes in the hole like the ones shown above from Walker and Igwebuike allowed the Broncos to convert on key short-yardage plays throughout the game. In particular, Walker often looked a beat slow in run defense, a far cry from the guy whose athleticism and instincts let him put up 20.5 tackles for loss last season.

The offense has the advantage on any one short-yardage play, of course, and even the vaunted Cats defense of last season struggled to stop opponents in those situations, allowing conversions on 78.0 percent of third- and fourth-down running plays with less than two yards to go — good for 116th out of 128 FBS teams. But with the potential for regression in other areas defensively, and in a close game where one timely short-yardage stop could have been the difference, the way mid-major Western Michigan pushed NU around has to make fans nervous for the season to come.

2016 Football Preview: “Sky Team” looks to build on 2015 successes

2016 Football Preview: “Sky Team” looks to build on 2015 successes
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Northwestern’s vaunted “Sky Team” secondary will have a bit of a different look in 2016.

Cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry have graduated, leaving a Wildcats defense that allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the country last season. To fill the void, NU will look to senior cornerback — and recently-named team captain — Matthew Harris to head up the defensive backs. A shutdown player, Harris led the team with four interceptions in 2015.

The Wildcats had originally planned for junior cornerback Keith Watkins II to start opposite Harris, but after a knee injury during training camp left him sidelined for the season, the only other cornerback on the roster, sophomore Montre Hartage, is expected to jump in. Hartage played in every game in 2015, though mostly on special teams, and had four tackles as a backup.

Meanwhile, the middle of the field will likely be filled by junior safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. Igwebuike burst onto the scene as a freshman after intercepting three passes in the Cats’ upset win over Wisconsin and improved last year as a sophomore, starting every game and finishing second on the team in tackles. Queiro has spent most of his career as a backup and missed eight games in 2015 due to injury, but that will change this season.

Behind the wall of Igwebuike and Queiro, there are only two other true safeties listed on the roster — a potential cause for concern if injuries start to mount. Sophomore Jared McGee looks to have a role as a backup after being listed on the opening two-deep, and sophomore defensive back Parrker Westphal, a former four-star recruit, made the two-deep for the first time in his career for the Cats’ opening matchup vs. Western Michigan. Junior Tommy Odell should factor in at some point as well.

Additionally, NU has eight players rostered simply as “defensive back” but most of them are freshmen or redshirt freshmen who don’t have any experience or a true position yet. That’s not to say they won’t see the field at some point this season. Redshirt freshmen Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo will see some action and compete for playing time as reserves, with the winner to fill in at Queiro’s old role last year as a backup rotational player.

The bottom line is that the Cats’ secondary will be one of the best in the nation again in 2016. NU clearly has confidence in its defensive backs, so much so that the team released a Costacos Brothers themed poster earlier this offseason. All that stands in the unit’s way is another freak injury. Coach Pat Fitzgerald moved Marcus McShepard  and Steven Reese to wide receiver in February, a good move which shored up a paper-thin receiving core, but if another defensive back gets hurt, especially after Watkins II went down, secondary depth may soon become an issue.