NU can't sustain turnover success

It was unsustainable: Without forcing turnovers, NU couldn't beat Minnesota.

Turnovers are great. Turnovers that turn into scores are better. But when a team's offensive success is predicated on defensive excellence, it creates an unsustainable means of winning games.

That team is Northwestern, and that team was upset by Minnesota 20-17 Saturday when the interceptions and fumbles that provided so many of the Wildcats' scoring chances never happened. This is far from an indictment of the Northwestern defense, which only allowed 299 yards of total offense and 10 points on its own. But by failing to win the turnover battle as the bottom fell out of the Northwestern offense, it wasn't able to will the Wildcats to victory like it had so frequently this season.

Linebacker Collin Ellis, whose two pick sixes against Cal made up the winning difference in Northwestern's opener, told reporters after the loss to Minnesota that turnovers are built into the defensive game plan. For the unit, taking the ball away comes down to being in the right place and the right time.

"If you do your job, you will make plays," Ellis said.

And the Northwestern defense has done that consistently this season. The Wildcats lead the nation with 13 interceptions this season, and have the 13th best turnover margin (+7). Add that to the very manageable 28.3 points the team allows on average and you've got a recipe for success.

Northwestern might not have taken the ball away from Minnesota, but when your defense gives up 10 points and it's still not enough for you to win, you've got a much bigger problem than forcing fumbles.

The thing is, it's no secret that there are serious issues for Northwestern that go beyond the scope of Kain Colter and Venric Mark's health. We've talked all season long about how the Wildcats' red zone offense has been largely ineffective, and I've written about the team's inability to maintain momentum to point of redundancy.

These issues have been evident since the season began, but were mitigated by Northwestern's ability to win the turnover battle on a consistent basis.

But like all unsustainable systems, this one reached its breaking point in Saturday's loss. With Colter and Mark relegated to the sidelines, Trevor Siemian turned the ball over three times with a fumble, an interception and a pick six. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and company mauled the Northwestern offensive line and the team only gained 98 yards on the ground.

Pat Fitzgerald told reporters after the game that he and his staff need to build off what his players are doing well and scrap what they're doing poorly, focusing on schematic changes. He also called his offense's struggles a fundamental lack of execution, which wide receiver Christian Jones painted as a series of mistakes.

"A lot of the guys made mistakes," said Jones. "I know I made mistakes myself. A lot of the guys came and picked it up around me and that's the thing with the team: somebody makes a mistake, everyone else has to pick it up around them."

Now, everyone else on the team needs to pick it up around the defense, which can't realistically be relied upon to crutch the lackluster offensive production endemic for Northwestern. Instead of focusing on winning the turnover battle, NU needs to focus on turning over a new leaf.


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