The No. 21-ranked Wildcats, who face MSU in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday, are plus-13 in turnover margin this season, which is tied for 10th in the country. They have created 25 turnovers and are especially adept at knocking the ball loose.
Northwestern has 16 fumble recoveries, which is tied for second nationally. It’s recovered at least two fumbles five times this year and is 4-1 in those games.
The Wildcats drew inspiration earlier this season from Charles Tillman, a cornerback for the Chicago Bears who has recorded 10 forced fumbles this season.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald showed his defense some Tillman highlights, and it seems to have worked.
“You’ve got to think about it and do it in practice over and over again,” said linebacker David Nwabuisi, who has two fumble recoveries. “It’s repetition, really. When you constantly think about getting the ball out, you take reps and every time you get a tackle, you’re trying to punch the ball out and rip the ball out.”
That jibes with the approach Fitzgerald takes to creating turnovers. It’s a full-time job, he said.
“I think a lot of teams have some nice clichés – ‘Turnover Tuesdays’ and all that crap. I don’t buy into that,” Fitzgerald said. “I think you’ve got to do it every day, every play.”
Communication breakdowns in the secondary were a recurring issue for MSU late this season, but the Bulldogs feel they’ve gotten that fixed.
Over its last five games, opponents are passing for an average of 273.4 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions against State. In the Egg Bowl, Ole Miss had 294 yards and five TDs.
The Bulldogs have been working hard to communicate better.
“That’s been our main focus,” defensive back Corey Broomfield said. “Every play we want to make sure we’re giving hand signals, we’re talking and everybody knows the play before we get lined up. We feel like we’re talented enough that nobody should get anything on us once we get lined up.”
On the season, MSU ranks 57th in the country and eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, and its 16 interceptions ties for 18th nationally.
Two years ago here, Michigan used cowbells during practice to try and acclimate its players to the noise MSU fans would make during the Gator Bowl. There were no cowbells seen or heard at Northwestern’s practice on Friday.
In fact, Nwabuisi acted as if he wasn’t clued in to the Bulldog fans’ dearly held cowbell tradition.
“What’s the cowbells?” he said. “I probably won’t hear them.”