Godwin Igwebuike didn’t make the game-winning catch for the Detroit Lions on Sunday, but without his heads-up play earlier in the drive, the Lions may have never even gotten the chance at a game-winning throw.
The Lions were down four points to the Minnesota Vikings, needing to drive 75 yards in 1:50 with no timeouts left. Jared Goff made it clear to everyone in the huddle before the drive started: get out of bounds when you’ve got the chance.
The drive got off to a slow start. Four plays and 40 seconds into the drive, the Lions had only managed to move the ball 11 yards downfield. Detroit was facing a third-and-10 from their own 36-yard line and needed not only a first down, but they were getting to a point where they couldn’t afford a running clock much longer.
Igwebuike was in the game as a check-down option for Goff over the middle of the field. He was a bit of a last resort for Goff, but somehow he knew the ball was coming.
“I just felt him looking at me, so I was like, ‘Let’s go, let’s get right. Go ahead and dump it off to me,’” Igwebuike said on Monday.
When he caught the ball, Igwebuike was still a few yards short. He had two options, lower the shoulder and try to split defenders up the middle to potentially get the first down but keep the clock running, or take the risk of bouncing it outside in the hopes he could beat the defender to the end, pick up a first down and stop the clock. He chose the latter, riskier options, but it paid off. He picked up 13 yards and stopped the clock after burning just nine seconds off the clock. Seven plays later, the entire Lions team was celebrating in the west end zone.
“Great play. Great play,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said after the game. “That was unbelievable.”
For Igwebuike, his key play was the culmination of a miraculous offseason. His professional career took a stark turn during an offseason workout practice when offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn took notice of Igwebuike—then a safety—during a special teams drill.
“I got the ball in my hand and put a little sauce on it, made a dude fly by me, and kinda just laughed it off a little bit,” Igwebuike recalled last week. “Went back again and did a little something again and everybody (went), ‘Oh my god,’ gassing me up. I got a little something, don’t worry about it. But it caught A. Lynn’s eye and he’s like, ‘Man, you got something in you.’”
His career took a new step last week. With D’Andre Swift out of the Chicago Bears game on Thanksgiving due to an early shoulder injury, coaches were preparing to turn to Igwebuike at the end of the game. With the Bears driving to take the lead, the Lions running back assured coaches he was ready for the moment. His speed and hands make him an ideal option for those late-game scenarios.
“Last week (running backs coach) Duce (Staley) he told me I was going in for two minute if we had it,” Igwebuike said on Monday. “At the end of the game, he was like, ‘You know what you’re doing?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’”
As luck would have it, the Bears ran the entirety of the clock out of the game and he never got his chance. However, Igwebuike wanted to make sure he was fully prepared in case his name was called again this week with Swift still out. He stayed after practice with backup quarterback Tim Boyle. He went through plays in his head in the hotel room the night before the game.
Sure enough, the Lions got into that scenario, and Igwebuike thrived.
“For it to come down to a two-minute (drill), and to see that fruit pay off—just being prepared for whatever comes—it’s really cool. It’s really cool, and hats off to (the coaches). It means the world that they can trust me in that way and that my teammates can trust me.”