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Saturday, November 1, 2008
Patience pays off for Northwestern defense

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Northwestern cornerback David Oredugba had a premonition during warm-ups before Saturday's game, and he shared it with safety Brendan Smith.

"I just had a feeling in me," Oredugba said. "I can't explain it. I was like, 'You know what? You'll get a pick six today.'"

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Northwestern's Brendan Smith celebrates his interception for a touchdown in the final minute of the Wildcats 24-17 win over Minnesota

It seemed like a bold and highly unlikely prediction.

Minnesota entered the game leading the nation in both takeaways (24) and turnover margin(plus-1.88). Gophers sophomore quarterback Adam Weber had thrown only three interceptions in 163 pass attempts and led Big Ten starters in completion percentage (67.1).

For most of Saturday's game, Weber looked unshakable. Only one of two passes were near interceptions. But with 26 seconds left and the game tied at 17-17, Weber looked downfield for his No. 1 target, Eric Decker.

Northwestern was in "quarters," or Cover 4, and Oredugba broke on the ball.

"It kind of bounced off my hands," he said. "The funny thing is they always make fun of me for my bad hands. So I guess my bad hands came in play today.

"I've always been a defensive player for a reason."

Fortunately for Oredugba and Northwestern, senior safety Brendan Smith boasts a better offensive skill set. He picked off the tipped pass and zigzagged 48 yards to the end zone, putting Northwestern ahead with 12 seconds left.

After failing to force a turnover last week in an unsightly loss to Indiana, a team that had committed a giveaway in its previous seven games, Northwestern got the takeaway it needed.

"I got the ball and I just thought, 'Touchdown,'" said Smith, who had his second return for a touchdown this season. "Everyone should think that when they've got the ball in their hands with 40 seconds left, however many seconds, it doesn't matter. ...

"Guys came in and did their job. It's that simple. When you come in and worry about doing your job first and then make plays from there, we'll be very successful. And it showed."

Patience was a theme throughout Northwestern's victory. Junior quarterback Mike Kafka, starting his first game since 2006, exploded for 217 rushing yards against the Gophers. The offense went extremely conservative at times, trying to limit mistakes.

In the end, it came down to a defense that has made obvious strides this season but didn't have the game-changing plays to show for it. Both teams came in with similar résumés, but Minnesota had been more opportunistic on defense and more disciplined on offense.

"To win a football game, you've got to fight, scratch and claw for 60 minutes, and good things are going to happen for you," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "You just don't know which play it's going to happen.

"I heard [Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster] say in his press conference last week, 'It's Turnover Tuesdays.' It's turnover every day in our program."

Northwestern shut out Minnesota in the second half and didn't allow fourth-quarter points for the second straight week. After years of being a liability, the Wildcats defense has arrived.

"We've proven this year," defensive end Corey Wootton said, "that we can be the rock of our team."