The goal for Northwestern's defense: Be like the Bears.
Now, perhaps it's not the 2013 Bears that Pat Fitzgerald's group is trying to pattern its game off — Chicago's pro football team has had a tendency to allow a whole mess of points so far this season — but it's that uncanny ability to create turnovers that the coaches of "Chicago Big Ten Team" are trying to recreate in Evanston.
"It's an attitude. It's a way that you approach every day not just game day. And Mike Hankwitz, our defensive coordinator, and our defensive staff work their tails off with our guys talking about always going after the football," Fitzgerald said on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike" show Friday morning. "We watched a year ago the Bears. There was no better defense to emulate than that group of defensive players. We put a lot of highlight tapes together after Sunday — we get together with the guys on Monday — we'd pull the Bears, the 'Peanut Punch' and all that stuff that we'd show our guys. And it's just an attitude and a mindset."
The work has paid off.
Only two teams in the country have more interceptions than the Wildcats' 10, and no one has taken as many picks back to the end zone, with Northwestern doing it four times. In four games, the Cats defense has recovered just one fumble but forced four.
And the Wildcats' 83 points off turnovers are the most in all of college football.
It's no surprise then, that Northwestern can point to games this season where turnovers by its defense have directly led to victories. There's no better example than the season-opening win at Cal, when linebacker Collin Ellis returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in a game Northwestern won by exactly two touchdowns. And in their last game against FCS foe Maine — another two-touchdown win — the Wildcats got a pair of pick sixes from Damien Proby and Dean Lowry.
And that's not even mentioning safety Ibraheim Campbell, who has three interceptions on the season, more than every player in the country except for three. He also spanned this season and last with an interception in five consecutive games.
Fitzgerald will be the first to say turnovers can't be relied on to win games, but he'll also tell you that if you're creating turnovers, you've got a much better chance of winning.
"You can't rely on that. It's about fundamentals, about getting off blocks and covering people and playing together. But being opportunistic — and the No. 1 correlation to victory in football is the turnover ratio. It's not even close," he said. "And if we continue to get that done, we'll continue to win football games. And that's a combo of taking the ball away and offense."