Turnover battle could be key element for Wisconsin vs. Northwestern

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern has more takeaways than any other defense in the Big Ten, but Wisconsin has committed fewer turnovers than any other team in the conference. Something has to give Saturday at Camp Randall, and whatever does could be the difference between 4-2 or 3-3 for the Badgers.

MADISON -- It sticks in Gary Andersen's head, watching the Northwestern defense rip at Braxton Miller's arm as he's carrying the ball during Ohio State's narrow victory Saturday.

The Wildcats forced and recovered two fumbles, along with creating Miller's second interception of the season in what was nearly a win over a top-five team. That brought Northwestern's total to 14 takeaways though five games, a mark that tops the Big Ten and ranks 10th nationally, while also setting the Wildcats on pace to surpass last season's Big Ten-leading total of 29.

As Wisconsin leaves its bye week behind to host No. 19 Northwestern Saturday in a game that could hold to major bowl implications, Andersen knows the Badgers can't give the Wildcats the opportunities to continue that trend.

"A lot of people sit back and say they're lucky with some opportunities," Andersen said. "I disagree wholeheartedly. I think they take advantage of opportunities when the ball's on the ground and when it's in the air. It's very important to them. You can see that on film. Go back to last year, and it's really a continuation."

The numbers don't necessarily say Northwestern has a great defense, or even a good one. The Wildcats give up 431.4 yards per game (88th nationally), and they allow a pedestrian 27 points per game, including a 21-point allowance to FCS opponent Maine three weeks ago.

But with an effective offense, Northwestern has survived as a top-20 team by making the big defensive plays when it's needed them.

"We've had four offensive turnovers in five games, and that's four too many. We're looking for the perfect ball-security game, and that's finishing with a zero." -Andy Ludwig

"They're doing a great job of deflecting passes that are intercepted," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "The defensive linemen do a great job of getting their hands up, secondary players are breaking on the ball. They're very opportunistic in that way."

Luckily for Wisconsin, Andersen and the rest of the coaching staff emphasize taking care of the ball as much as Northwestern focuses on taking it away. The Badgers have only turned the ball over five times this season -- the best mark in the Big Ten -- and one of those was a fumble on special teams.

Ludwig's longest answer during an interview Tuesday was when describing ball security as a "team stat," from the quarterback-center exchange to the speed and adjustments of routes to quarterback decision making.

"It's always the top priority for the offense," Ludwig said. "We've had four offensive turnovers in five games, and that's four too many. We're looking for the perfect ball-security game, and that's finishing with a zero."

The Badgers' four offensive turnovers have all been interceptions, and while Wisconsin's running backs have put the ball on the ground a couple times this season, they have yet to be the reason for a turnover.

That goes back to Wisconsin's philosophic priorities, and Andersen said the team's backs even spend the warm-up period of practice holding a football in their arms.

"The saying around here is ‘ball security is job security,'" running back James White said. "So you've got to be able to protect the football. We take a lot of pride in it. In order to be on the field, you've got to be able to protect the football.

"(Northwestern) takes advantage of their opportunities when you give them a chance. We can't give them the chance to make those opportunities."

The mindset -- and proven results -- of the Wisconsin offense and the Northwestern defense make for an interesting watch Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Both units view turnovers as the most important aspect of the game. Whomever wins that battle will have a great chance to win on the scoreboard.

"We've got to do a good job of protecting the ball and taking care of it," quarterback Joel Stave said. "I think every defense loves to get a turnover when they can, but Northwestern has done a really good job of actually creating those turnovers, so we've just got to make sure that when we're carrying the ball, we're tucking it away and making good reads and good decisions in the passing game."

Wisconsin coaches and players have said there isn't any more emphasis on protecting the ball this week than in others. It's already stressed as the top worry every week.

But the Badgers' offense is quite aware of what they're up against. The tape doesn't wait long to remind them.

"Braxton is carrying the ball early in the game, and it just stuck in my head, the (Northwestern) kid trying to rip the ball out of Braxton's arms as he went down," Andersen said. "They're making plays. They're well coached and schooled up on doing that.

"We've done a good job (protecting the ball). I really think we have. It's got to continue."

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