Preview: Winning the turnover war

Matt Forman

A new season means a world of change.

Last October, Northwestern fell behind 35-14 to Minnesota in its fourth Big Ten game of the season. With 17 minutes remaining in the game, then-junior linebacker Malcolm Arrington intercepted an errant throw by freshman quarterback Adam Weber and returned the ball 27 yards to the 8-yard line, leading to an NU touchdown.

Arrington’s interception was one of Weber’s two picks on the day and 19 of the season. NU rallied from that play to eke out a 49-48 double-overtime victory on Homecoming at Ryan Field. As the Wildcats head to Minneapolis for the Gophers’ homecoming, they will look to rally without Arrington, and star running back Tyrell Sutton.

While falling behind early was an anomaly for NU last year, it has been a consistent trend this season. The Cats have been outscored by opponents 33-3 in the first quarter in Big Ten play. NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team just has to keep playing, which he believes it has done.

“What’s encouraging to me is we get stronger as the game goes along,” Fitzgerald said. “We haven’t necessarily played our best football in the first quarter.”

Last week against Indiana, NU opened with a 20-play, 90-yard drive that resulted in a field goal – the first points for NU in the first quarter of a Big Ten game this season.

“That’s what we always want to do,” senior running back Omar Conteh said. “We always want to make that first punch. And whoever comes out, offense or defense, we want to make that statement.”

The key for NU will be converting long drives into touchdowns. Fitzgerald said the Cats have to execute their game plan, and avoid trying to do too much.

The Cats escaped last season’s huge hole because the Gophers turned the ball over on consecutive drives at the end of the third quarter. Two Cats interceptions on defense led to 14 points on offense.

But NU can’t expect the same to happen this year. Minnesota leads the country with a plus-15 turnover margin, highlighted by 24 takeaways.

Not only will a fast start benefit the offense, but it will benefit a defense that has had to play from behind at some point in every Big Ten game this season.

“It’s always important to start fast,” senior outside linebacker Prince Kwateng said. “You never want to get behind the eight ball. We get excited to watch the offense, and any time they do something good it makes us want to fight even harder for our brother.”

When the two teams took the field last season, Minnesota was cemented at the bottom of the Big Ten standings, with a 1-6 (0-3 Big Ten record). NU sat at 3-3 (1-2) after an upset road victory at Michigan State.Come Saturday, two of the top five teams in the conference will take the field in Minneapolis. For Fitzgerald, that means a world of change.

“Both teams are in a totally different place than last year,” Fitzgerald said. “Both teams are drastically improved. Both teams are playing as competitive of football as they have all season. It’s going to be a great challenge.”

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