The turnover battle.
It's something coaches are constantly discussing as the silver bullet when it comes to winning football games: Win the turnover battle, and you'll win the game. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is among those who have said that the turnover margin stat correlates as close to victories as any other. And he had good reason to believe that, too.
Through the Wildcats' first four games, no team in the country was converting turnovers into points like Northwestern. The 83 points off turnovers led the nation. The defense's 10 interceptions were best in the country, and the unit had taken four of those back for touchdowns.
Northwestern was 4-0.
But fast forward to this week, and the Wildcats have dropped two straight since then. The thing is, though, the takeaways are still there. The points, however, are not. The Northwestern defense has taken the ball away three times in each of the team's back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, but the offense has cashed those in for a total of just 13 points.
Two weeks ago vs. the Buckeyes, the Wildcats' defense did a great job containing the typically explosive Braxton Miller, causing him to fumble twice and throw an interception at the end of the first half. But only the first fumble was turned into a touchdown. A week later at Wisconsin — a game in which the Wildcats were torched, 35-6 — the Northwestern defense twice intercepted quarterback Joel Stave and forced a fumble against stand-out wideout Jared Abbrederis. But the offense, which struggled whenever and however it was handed the ball, converted just a pair of field goals off those turnovers.
Despite the two defeats to two of the Big Ten's elite programs, Northwestern still has a chance to win a bunch of games and even to make the Big Ten Championship Game. But if the mojo is going to turn around in Evanston, capitalizing on those turnovers is going to be a big part of it.
Saturday's opponent, Minnesota, is not a strong offensive team, but it does have the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten, seven, tied with Illinois. The Gophers have lost just two fumbles and thrown five interceptions. But the Wildcats' defense has been one of the best in the Big Ten this season and the best at taking the ball away. The 13 picks and four recovered fumbles equal 17 takeaways, most in the conference.
It's one of those "something's-got-to-give" matchups, at least in this phase of the game. With a reeling Gophers squad and a Northwestern team in desperate need of a win the way the past two weeks have gone, it'd figure the Wildcats have the advantage.