College football: Gophers, Wildcats making turnovers work in their favor
By Marcus R. FullerSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- Once linebacker De'Vondre Campbell leaped to snatch a tipped pass from Michigan quarterback Shane Morris out of the air, he could see there was nothing stopping him from the first pick-six ...
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - Once linebacker De’Vondre Campbell leaped to snatch a tipped pass from Michigan quarterback Shane Morris out of the air, he could see there was nothing stopping him from the first pick-six of his University of Minnesota career.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior forgot what he was taught when he played tight end and wide receiver in high school. He carried the ball away from his body, letting it hang low as he jogged in from 30 yards out.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill gave him grief for that later.
“He said, ‘Next time, tuck the ball,’ ” Campbell said with a smile. “I was like, ‘Coach, I knew nobody was going to catch me.’ ”
Campbell’s interception return for a touchdown in a 30-14 win over the Wolverines on Sept. 27 was one of 15 forced turnovers this season for the Gophers (4-1, 1-0 in the Big Ten), who led the Big Ten in that category before the bye last week.
Going into Saturday’s game against Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium, Minnesota is still among the nation’s leaders in takeaways.
Northwestern relies on an opportunistic defense, too. The Wildcats (3-2, 2-0) are tied for 11th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus-six) with Minnesota.
“We always do ball drills, do strip drills,” said Gophers senior linebacker Damien Wilson, who has an interception and fumble recovery. “We try to create as many turnovers as possible. Bottom line is when we do get a turnover, we try to score on every chance we get.”
That might explain why sophomore cornerback Jalen Myrick dropped an interception against Michigan. The team’s fastest player was already thinking about scoring before he got his hands on the pass. Myrick still “ran 20 yards like a bullet,” Kill joked.
“I think he thought he had it,” he said. “But if Northwestern gives us an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. Or you could pay for it later.”
If Minnesota doesn’t capitalize off turnovers, Northwestern likely will.
In the Wildcats’ 29-6 win over Penn State, linebacker Anthony Walker had a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown on a pass from Christian Hackenberg that was the turning point in the second half.
Northwestern has 43 points off turnovers this season, but Minnesota has the edge with 52.
Last year, the Gophers had three interception returns for touchdowns, including one from linebacker James Manuel in a win at Northwestern. They already have two this year, including one from Myrick against Middle Tennessee State.
“Getting a pick-six, that can take the wind out of your sail if you’re an opposing offense,” Campbell said. “It really comes with timing. You have to catch on to what the offense is doing early. You just kind of read tendencies throughout the game.”
Northwestern read Wisconsin so well it had four interceptions in a 20-14 win over the Badgers last week. Safety Godwin Igwebuike had three interceptions on Joel Stave, including two in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota and Northwestern are tied for second in the Big Ten with eight interceptions. The Gophers have come a long way in the secondary under Kill, getting only four interceptions (nine total turnovers forced) in 2011.
Defense has been a major factor in each team’s success. But forcing turnovers isn’t good enough when the offense gives the ball right back.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was frustrated when his offense struggled to execute during an 0-2 start this season.
The Wildcats forced two interceptions against California in the season opener. But Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian squandered his team’s comeback hopes by throwing two interceptions in a 31-24 loss.
“In the first couple weeks, we couldn’t get out of our own way offensively,” Fitzgerald said. “We couldn’t sustain drives. We couldn’t score points. We left our defense out to dry. Left them on the field way too long.”
That also happened to the Gophers in their only loss. Their five offensive turnovers in a 30-7 loss at Texas Christian were the most for the program in a game since 2007.
Instead of Kill’s defense setting the tone, it was put in a tough spot having to compete against an explosive Horned Frogs offense on a shorter field. But in the past two games, the Gophers are back to winning the turnover battle (plus-three).
That could be the difference Saturday.
“The plus-minus ratio of turnovers has more to do with winning and losing than how many turnovers you actually create,” Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “You create turnovers, the same time your offense has to keep from turning the ball over. We keep track of turnovers obviously, but it’s still a game of points, not letting people score. But we’re very pleased with it so far with where we’re at. We’ve made big plays in the games.”
Kill said Thursday on his radio show that starting junior right guard Foster Bush is out for Saturday’s game. Junior Joe Bjorklund will replace Bush, who started the first five games.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with the Forum News Service