Gameday: Using Bears’ gameplan, Cats’ defense goes on the offensive

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

Late in the first quarter of Saturday’s game at Camp Randall, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave stared down Jared Abbrederis and fired the football in the direction of his favorite receiver, as well as toward Northwestern’s two best defensive backs.

NU sophomore Nick VanHoose halted his stride and planted in front of Abbrederis. When the ball passed into the receiver’s gloves, VanHoose, the Wildcats’ top cornerback, turned and slapped it free.

Junior safety Ibraheim Campbell, approaching Abbrederis from behind, reacted quickly to VanHoose’s strip, tapping the ball toward himself, then grabbing it with two hands as he dragged his feet along the sideline.


“I saw the quarterback look, I broke, and I didn’t think I’d be able to make a play on the ball,” Campbell said. “But I knew that Nick was in good position, so if he made a play I was going to try to get it off a tip or something. That’s something we try to stress — pursuing to the ball.”

It was a rare Cats highlight in a blowout loss to the Badgers, during which almost everything went wrong for NU ­— everything, that is, except creating turnovers. The Cats continued their crusade of takeaways against Wisconsin, forcing three turnovers, the fifth time in six games this season they’ve caused at least that many.

In year two of an aggressive new approach, turnovers have come to define NU’s defense — they’ve kept the Cats kicking throughout 2013, from the moment the calendar turned. In NU’s Gator Bowl victory Jan. 1, the Cats grabbed four interceptions, including one that then-senior defensive end Quentin Williams returned for an early touchdown.

The dominant display of defense is reminiscent of Chicago’s NFL team, the Bears. The Bears’ defenders, colloquially known as the “Monsters of the Midway,” have served as a model for NU’s own attacking style in the secondary.

The Gator Bowl performance proved to be a prelude of an interception barrage in 2013.

This season, NU is tied for the national lead with 13 passes picked off. There were junior linebacker Collin Ellis’ two pick-sixes in the Cats’ opener, a 14-point win over California. There was sophomore Traveon Henry’s athletic leaping grab a week later in a victory over Syracuse. Two more touchdown returns came against Maine, when senior linebacker Damien Proby and sophomore lineman Dean Lowry both scored on interceptions.

And at the center of everything has been Campbell.

The safety’s four picks this season tie him for the Big Ten lead, and his eight career interceptions (in only three years) place him top 10 all-time among NU defensive players.

“He sees the ball thrown great and sees the quarterback well,” VanHoose said of his companion in the secondary. “His eyes are really good, and he’s usually in the right position at the right time.”

But the Cats don’t deal exclusively in interceptions. NU’s defense has also recovered four fumbles this season, enough for the team to tie for fifth in the country in total takeaways. The unit’s inspiration, players and coaches say, is the Chicago defense a few miles south.

For the second year in a row, the Bears are best in the NFL at forcing turnovers. Last season, when the Bears caused 44 turnovers as a team, cornerback and fumble-forcer extraordinaire Charles “Peanut” Tillman dislodged 10 balls on his own. This year, Tillman has forced four turnovers in five games and fellow-corner Tim Jennings five in six games.

Up in Evanston, the Cats coaching staff has been taking note. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said the team began modeling the Bears’ defense roughly a year ago, when secondary coach Jerry Brown made a tape of Tillman’s technique in stripping ball handlers and shared it with NU’s defensive backs.

Hankwitz said the staff preached not only fumble-forcing methods but also the general ball-hawking mentality that leads to all varieties of turnovers.

“We work hard at causing things to happen,” Hankwitz said. “We’re asking them to execute and go to the ball, and if we’re breaking to the ball we’ve got a chance for interceptions. Our d-line is doing a great job at getting their hands up and tipping balls, which has led to interceptions. And when we’re tackling a guy, we want a second or third guy trying to punch or rip the ball out.”

With Tillman and the Bears as a paragon of what the defense hoped to become, the Cats bought in immediately.

“We realized that the Bears were a great example to go off of because they were great at getting turnovers, great at going after the ball,” said Campbell, who forced two fumbles last season. “That was something that we tried to implement, and we started to watch their film and started to practice what they did.”

With 16 forced fumbles and 13 interceptions in 13 games last season, the Cats comfortably led the Big Ten in takeaways. And if the Gator Bowl was the zenith of the turnover frenzy, this year has been a worthy follow-up. Midway through a second straight year of impressive takeaway totals, players and coaches acknowledge turnovers as the defense’s identity, and coach Pat Fitzgerald has no qualms about it.                                              

“I’ll take turnovers seven days a week and twice on Sunday,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s how you win football games. Over time, turnover ratio is the number one correlation to success.”

Though Fitzgerald’s claim might lack statistical backing, there’s no question turnovers contribute to victories, assuming gambling for big plays on defense doesn’t result in big plays for the opposing offense. Hankwitz said this week NU’s vulnerability to hefty gains — like Abbrederis’ 63-yard score on poor coverage from Campbell early against Wisconsin — has nothing to do with the team’s ball-chasing ways.

And because the defense remains committed to the mindset and strategy of forcing turnovers, Campbell insists the takeaways won’t subside.

“I don’t think that it’s been luck,” Campbell said. “Most of our turnovers have been guys making great plays on the ball, great job going after the ball. So I would say it’s something that should continue.”

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