Northwestern defense feeds on turnovers

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

So which football team led the Big Ten in turnovers forced in 2012?

If you chose Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin or Michigan—which finished first through fourth in the league in scoring defense—you weren’t paying close enough attention.

The honor belonged to Northwestern, which forced 29 turnovers (16 fumbles, 13 interceptions), four more than any other team.

And look who is leading the Big Ten in turnovers forced this season: Northwestern, which has 14 in five games (11 interceptions and three fumbles) and faces UW at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

“They’re opportunistic when the ball’s on the ground,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “They’re opportunistic when the ball’s in the air and they make those plays.

“Tipped balls turn into picks, similar to what happened in the Ohio State game. The kid gets his hand on the ball late, ball goes in the air and they pick that off.

“A lot of teams, a lot of people sit back and say they are lucky with some opportunities. I disagree wholeheartedly.

“I think they’re prepared. They take advantage of opportunity when the ball’s on the ground and when it’s in the air. That’s very important to them. Something they work on.”

UW (3-2, 1-1) will have to be wary of the Wildcats’ penchant for taking the ball away.

The Wildcats (4-1, 0-1) forced three turnovers, two fumbles and an interception, in their 40-30 loss to Ohio State on Saturday.

Quarterback Braxton Miller twice lost fumbles, the first time in the backfield on a zone-read play and the second time at the end of a 5-yard run to the Wildcats’ 2.

The interception occurred when reserve defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo hit Miller’s arm as he was trying to throw, causing the ball to flutter downfield.

“I watched them against Ohio State and I saw them really ripping at the ball when Braxton Miller was carrying it,” UW quarterback Joel Stave said. “I don’t anticipate carrying it like he did, but everyone on the offense needs to be aware that they are trying to get it out.”

Northwestern’s interception total of 11 also leads the Big Ten. Four of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.

Stave has thrown four interceptions in 129 attempts. He has thrown one interception in four of UW’s five games, with the only unblemished performance coming in the loss at Arizona State.

Stave’s interception at Ohio State, which led to the Buckeyes’ fourth touchdown, came when he was hit before he could release the ball.

“They do a good job pressuring the quarterback and forcing interceptions,” Stave said of Northwestern’s defenders. “We’ve got to make sure we’re doing a good job protecting. I’ve got to make sure I’m doing a good job getting the ball out on time.

“We’ve just got to be smart in our route running and catching the ball.”

UW protects the ball better than any other Big Ten team.

The Badgers enter the game with a league-low five turnovers. The lone lost fumble came on a punt return at Arizona State when the ball hit off blocker Sojourn Shelton.

Andersen likes the ball security exhibited so far by UW’s backs and receivers.

“Very impressed, especially with the running backs, the way they hold the ball high and tight,” he said. “When you watch practice, you can see how important that is to the running backs and to the offense as a whole.

“They’ve done a good job there. I really think we have. You’re going to have turnovers when you play almost half the season, but doing a good job there.

“They’ve got to continue.”

Particularly this week against a Northwestern team that is adept at taking the ball away from its opponents under former UW defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

“Hank really emphasizes it and so does our entire defensive staff,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Our guys are the ones that own it.

“We had a few more that were really close to coming out on Saturday. You’ve got to give the young men from Ohio State credit. They were able to secure the football.

“But we work at it on every play every day and I’m really proud of the job the guys are doing taking the football away.”

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