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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Illinois State Redbirds.
1. Will Anthony Walker double his tackle output from Week 1?
Half-full (Max Gelman): After Saturday’s loss, both Walker and coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that the All-American may have been trying to do too much on the field. Against an FCS team though, Walker will be sure to rebound from the paltry seven-tackle performance from Week One. This is Anthony Walker we’re talking about after all — the Anthony Walker who finished fourth in the nation last season and led the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss. The Anthony Walker who led the Wildcats in tackles by more than 30. The Anthony Walker who may very well end up in the NFL next season. He will be sure to regain his elite form when he faces Illinois State.
Half-empty (Tim Balk): Anthony Walker and the linebacker corps came into the year with sky-high expectations, and mostly disappointed in the opening showdown against Western Michigan. Walker was oddly quiet, recording just seven tackles. The Franchise will respond — we haven’t seen many underwhelming performances from the junior in his time in Evanston — but a huge performance might not be in the cards against Illinois State. Walker only hit the 14 tackle mark three times last year, and he was particularly quiet in NU’s battle with FCS Eastern Illinois. Walker won’t disappear like he did in the second half against Western Michigan, but he also won’t have a repeat of the Duke game last September. Take the under on 14 tackles.
2. Will NU be able to keep Justin Jackson’s carry total under 30?
Half-empty (TB): With Warren Long sidelined by a broken hand, it’s going to be the Justin Jackson show for the next few weeks. Even more so than usual. The Cats’ passing game was quieted against Western Michigan, mainly because the offense was off the field for so much of the game, and Clayton Thorson should have more opportunities to throw the ball around this week. But NU will still call Jackson’s number plenty. If the Cats can get the no huddle offense going the way the want to, it’ll mean more plays, and, of course more touches for The Ball Carrier. So a big carry number might not be a totally bad sign. But don’t expect Jackson to get much rest.
Half-full (MG): The Cats’ offensive gameplan over the past few seasons with Jackson as starter has revolved around shoving him down opponents’ throats. Jackson finished third in the country in 2015 with 312 carries as NU eased then-redshirt freshman quarterback Thorson into a starting role. However, in last year’s sole matchup against an FCS opponent — Eastern Illinois — Jackson only ran the ball 22 times out of a total 69 rushing attempts, good for about 32 percent of the team’s total carries. Seven other Wildcats ran the ball against the Panthers last year, including walk-on Navy SEAL Tom Hruby who rushed eight times. NU will find plenty of opportunities to spread the work among the other running backs and give Jackson some rest.
3. How many turnovers will NU be able to force after failing to force any last week?
Half-full (MG): The Redbirds came into 2016 without their biggest playmakers from a year ago, quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. This year, sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe is leading Illinois State in his first year as a starter, and his inexperience may very well lead to multiple miscues on offense. Additionally, even though Illinois State loves to run the ball, as seven Redbirds combined for 313 rushing yards in its opening week 50-13 trouncing over Valparaiso, only two of their eight rostered running backs are upperclassmen. For NU, senior cornerback and team captain Matthew Harris performed well against Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis last week, and Harris led the Cats with four interceptions in 2015. Harris’ dominance, coupled with the relative inexperience of Illinois State’s new playmakers, will likely lead to at least two takeaways on Saturday.
Half-empty (TB): If there was one big takeaway from NU’s opener, it’s that the defensive line wasn’t quite ready for showtime. The exits of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson represented significant losses, as the two disruptive defensive ends spearheaded a mighty defense with a knack for picking up sacks and forcing turnovers. Against Western Michigan, the defensive pressure was lackluster, and Western Michigan looked comfortable in racking up 416 yards without a single turnover. Junior defensive end Xavier Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are by no means slouches, but NU’s opening week performance suggests it may take some time for the two, and whole defensive front, to get going. NU has big playmakers like Walker and Harris, but the Cats will likely need to get more pressure to start turning teams over. Meanwhile, Illinois State is a ground and pound team that ran for more than 3,000 yards last year. Look for the Redbirds keep it on the ground, limiting the chances for NU to get takeaways on Saturday. NU still has the potential to be a big takeaway team. But this might not be the week for such things.
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.
If Northwestern is to compete for a first place finish in the Big Ten West, it will need its linebacker unit to perform at an exceptional level.
The good news: the Wildcats’ linebackers are among the best in the conference, if not the nation.
Anchored by superstar Anthony Walker, NU’s linebackers were instrumental in leading a defense that allowed just 18.6 points per outing last fall. Walker, now a junior, finished the year with 122 tackles (20.5 for loss) and garnered All-America honors, while Drew Smith contributed double digit tackles for loss as well. Junior Jaylen Prater started nine before a season ending injury sidelined him for the Cats’ final four games. Sophomore Nate Hall filled in for Prater during that period and performed admirably as a redshirt freshman, making key plays in a critical win at Wisconsin and finishing the year with 56 tackles.
Smith graduated in the spring, and NU will miss his experience, but the nucleus of Walker, Prater and Hall should put the Cats in good stead going into this fall. The sensational Walker will prowl the middle of the field, while flanked by an experienced senior in Prater and a potential rising star in Hall.
The position features both star power in Walker — whom the program is promoting as “The Franchise” — and depth. Sophomore Cameron Queiro appeared in every game as a freshman, while another member of the unit, senior Joseph Jones, recorded 18 tackles and a pair for loss last fall. Jones has made 24 appearances in three seasons in Evanston, and earned the start at SAM linebacker for the Cats’ opening game against Western Michigan.
That said, it will be crucial for Prater, Hall and especially Walker to stay healthy. NU’s frontline in the middle could be a destructive and dominant force.
Walker has already proven himself as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players, and a Bronko Nagurski-winning type of season from the junior, a la coach Pat Fitzgerald who twice won the award given to the nation’s best defensive player, could allow the program to rise to new heights following its 10-win 2015 season.
Fresh off a campaign in which the athletic Florida native wowed with a 19-tackle performance at Duke, a 14-tackle show against Purdue and a stellar performance against Illinois featuring 3.5 tackles for loss, a further improved Walker is a scary prospect for the rest of the Big Ten.
But Walker will not be expected to do it alone. Expectations are far from modest for Hall and Prater. And the emergence of other young members of the unit such as redshirt freshman Nathan Fox could boost an already strong unit.
Razor sharp performances from Walker and the whole unit will be a weekly must for a team with numerous offensive weaknesses, a reshuffled defensive secondary and a defensive line that may take some time to recover from the losses of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.
Fortunately for NU, the unit appears to have the personnel to smooth over some of the squad’s other weak points.
Sophomore Clayton Thorson is still the quarterback, junior running back Justin Jackson will still be taking handoffs from him and junior linebacker Anthony Walker will still be terrorizing opposing offenses. To the casual observer, not much has changed about Northwestern football from last year.
But the Wildcats’ release Monday of their depth chart for their Week 1 matchup against Western Michigan nonetheless held some surprises, clarifying starters at several key positions and crystallizing the 22 players who will lead NU in its attempt to repeat a 10-win season.
Wide receiver play was a major point for the Cats’ offense in 2015, and the position group received a complete overhaul over the offseason. Then-seniors Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson and Christian Jones all occupied the starting slots a year ago; taking the reins this year will be senior Austin Carr, junior Solomon Vault and sophomore Flynn Nagel.
Carr, a former walk-on, put on a breakout performance last season and enters the year as NU’s leading returning receiver. Nagel likewise cracked the lineup a year ago and was one of a handful of true freshman to see playing time. He got off to a promising start before injury limited him to just five games.
Rounding out the group is Vault, a converted running back. The junior had an offseason to practice at his new position and has already flashed some potential as a pass-catcher. His addition will help flip a position of weakness into an area of strength for the Cats.
The effort to improve the passing attack will also be aided by redshirt freshman Cameron Green, who moved from receiver to superback over the offseason and is now slotted as the backup behind junior Garrett Dickerson. The 6-foot-3 target should be a good balance to NU’s otherwise short receiving corps.
The defensive line also has a fresh look. With former defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson off to the NFL, former reserves senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be stepping in to fill the void.
Elsewhere on the defense, former four-star recruit Parrker Westphal made it on to the depth chart for the first time in his career, slotting into a reserve safety role. Westphal battled through injuries his first two years at NU, so seeing him ready to take the field is a welcome sight. His presence adds needed depth to the secondary in the wake of a season-ending injury to junior cornerback Keith Watkins II.
And somewhat surprisingly, senior Jaylen Prater beat out sophomore Nate Hall for the starting job at linebacker. Hall impressed toward the end of last year, but it looks like Prater’s greater experience won out.