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IOWA CITY — Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard didn’t have a ton of time to throw on Saturday.
The senior was under constant pressure from the Northwestern defensive front, specifically senior Ifeadi Odenigbo. Coming into the game, the Wildcats’ leading edge rusher had been frustrated this season — held to just one sack, compared to 13.5 total his first three years.
But of the six sacks on Beathard in Saturday’s 38-31 Northwestern victory, four came from Odenigbo.
He was one-on-one with Hawkeyes’ tackle Cole Croston several times throughout the game, and connected nearly every time. Odenigbo hadn’t faced many one-on-one looks before Saturday, and took full advantage.
“It’s a little bit of everything. Protection has not always been what it needs to be,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz. “We’re probably going to have to come up with better ways probably of getting the ball out quicker.
“It’s not much fun to watch it.”
If you were wearing black and gold on Saturday, the last part was obvious.
If you were in purple and white, though? It was a welcome change.
Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Odenigbo was one among a few veteran players on his team who came into the game against Iowa (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) unhappy with how they’d played individually through four games. That the Hawkeyes played the Wildcats (2-3, 1-1) so much differently than other teams had up front was likely the catalyst to a big day getting to the quarterback.
His biggest play of the day came at likely the most crucial time of the game. Iowa had pulled within 38-31 with 8:10 to go, and forced Northwestern into a three and out. The Hawkeyes had driven from their own 20 to midfield, and faced a third and six. Beathard had a receiver open, but as he went to throw, Odenigbo hit him from the blind side and knocked the ball loose. Croston was able to fall on it, but the Hawkeyes were forced to punt.
The play might not have officially ended the game, but it took away a vital opportunity for Iowa.
“He was single blocked a bunch, which, earlier this year, it looked like (teams) were chipping our defensive ends and double-teaming and max protecting in some shape or form,” Fitzgerald said. “I think he won a lot of one-on-one battles. He had a great strip-sack there at the end, that (was) a game-changer.”
Fitzgerald saw what he wanted on the field, and justifiably was satisfied with how Odenigbo and the rest of the defensive line exploited what Iowa’s offensive line was giving them.
But he also saw what he wanted off the field. He was addressing his defensive end specifically, but what he saw in Odenigbo is what he wanted to see in everyone.
“You get to that fork in the road and you’ve got a choice. You can either choose to feel sorry for yourself and pout and listen to the negative noise, or you can do something about it,” Fitzgerald said. “We do a non-denominational chapel on Fridays — he did it last night. It was outstanding; his message was outstanding to the team. (He talked) about doubt and things of that nature. He was very passionate leading up this whole week. My hope is he can build off that.”
Easily the scariest moment of Saturday’s contest came in the third quarter. On a kickoff in the third quarter just after Northwestern had tied the game at 24, Wildcats’ linebacker Brett Walsh sustained a big hit in pursuit of returner Desmond King.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz called the hit “a pretty crisp block by one of our players” and it left Walsh on the Kinnick Stadium turf. Trainers and doctors tended to the junior for several minutes before he was carted off, strapped to a backboard, but giving a thumbs up to the crowd.
Northwestern officials relayed after the game that tests done on Walsh at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics were all negative, and that Walsh was scheduled to travel back to Evanston, Ill., with the team.
Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said he was up front with his team about what was going on with Walsh.
“He was alert and talking to me initially on the field. He just had some of those symptoms that our athletic training staff and our doctors — which are the best in the world — are going to err on the side of caution,” Fitzgerald said. “I just brought (the players) up and gave them a quick update on what I was given from the doctors. We’ve unfortunately had that happen in the past, and in my opinion, when those things happen you be fully transparent with the guys on the field.”
Iowa had a slew of almosts in the return game on Saturday, most notably from Desmond King.
The senior defensive back nearly broke two punt returns for touchdowns, and finished with 162 return yards. He had two 32-yard punt returns, one of which got the Hawkeyes to the Northwestern 5-yard-line and set up an Akrum Wadley touchdown. Those punt returns were both season-highs, and his 77 total yards in punt returns are a single game career-high. He became the first Iowa player with 75-plus return yards on both kickoffs and punts since Kahlil Hill in 1998.
King’s returns were thwarted by shoestring tackles multiple times, and the ability he showed in both elicited laughs from Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald.
That special teams play, which set up three Iowa scores, gave the Hawkeyes an average starting field position at the Iowa 40 yard-line. The deepest Iowa started all game was its 20.
The only return Iowa wasted came at an inopportune time, and was the drive that started the Hawkeyes’ unraveling. Riley McCarron, who had 92 total return yards himself, had a 54-yard kickoff return that set Iowa up at the Northwestern 39. The Hawkeyes went three and out, culminated by a sack of C.J. Beathard that looked like it included a facemask that wasn’t called.
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