By Eric Rynston-Lobel
In the 2018 season, it seemed that Northwestern could force a turnover whenever they needed one. Look no further than the 2018 Holiday Bowl, when Jared McGee returned a Utah fumble for a touchdown to trim what was once a 20-3 deficit to 20-17.
In 2019, that hasn’t been the case.
Although there is no single reason to explain the team’s struggles, head coach Pat Fitzgerald continues to emphasize the lack of turnovers the defense is forcing. Last season, the ‘Cats forced 26 takeaways (tied for 11th-best nationally) en route to the school’s third consecutive victory in a bowl game. Through seven games in 2019, the defense has just eight, five of which came in the first two weeks.
“Gotta play cleaner. Got to take care of the ball better earlier, and then obviously we got to score points and take the ball away,” Fitzgerald said following the 20-0 loss to Iowa.
But as much as Fitz has emphasized the importance of taking the ball away, a brief venture into the statistics world tells us that it’s not an easy category to be consistent in from year to year. Of the top 14 teams in forcing takeaways in college football last season, just one of those teams (Fresno State) is in the top 14 again this season. From 2017 to 2018, only two teams (UCF and Utah State) were top 14 in the nation in takeaways both years.
In 2018, NU won five of its seven games decided by one possession or less. Turnovers at opportune times were a major reason for several of those victories. This included J.R. Pace’s interception in overtime against Nebraska, Joe Gaziano’s forced fumble to secure a 14-10 win at Iowa, Paddy Fisher’s game-sealing interception against Illinois (24-16 win) and Blake Gallagher’s interception on Utah’s first drive of the second half in the Holiday Bowl when the Utes had an opportunity to go up 27-3.
That’s not to say all of these situations were luck, but it’s important to consider that two parties were involved—the Northwestern defender and the offensive player on the opposing team. In many cases, the offensive player needed to make a mistake (not secure the ball, make a poor read on a throw, etc.) in order for the ‘Cats to force the turnover.
“Our recipe for success, we’re not putting the ingredients in. Taking care of the ball, scoring points, taking care of the quarterback, quarterback play being very efficient and taking the ball away and making big plays on defense,” Fitzgerald told WNUR Sports before Saturday’s game. “All those things are in our control, so we need to get that going and get it going in a hurry.”
Fitzgerald is correct that components like taking care of the quarterback and efficient quarterback play are in the control of his players. But that’s not exactly the case when it comes to ends-based results like scoring points or taking the ball away.
Bring in the Sports Psychologist!
Harvey Dorfman was the pioneer in the field of sports psychology and although his primary work was with Major League Baseball teams, his principles can just as easily be applied to football.
In one of his books, The Mental Game of Baseball, he presents a quote from German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which could help explain the Northwestern turnover dilemma.
Goethe said: “Everything we do has a result. But that which is right and prudent does not always lead to good, nor the contrary to bad.”
Dorfman uses this in the context of a pitcher in baseball. The pitcher could execute a perfect pitch on the outside corner that the batter just puts a good swing on and bloops into right field for a single. But nine out of 10 times, that pitch should result in either a strike or an out (“that which is right and prudent does not always lead to good”). On the contrary, a pitcher could throw a hanging breaking ball that the hitter pops up to the shortstop for an out. Nine out of 10 times though, that pitch would result in at least a base hit and maybe worse (“nor the contrary to bad”).
With football, the Northwestern defenders could be doing everything right defensively: tracking the quarterback’s eyes, sticking close to their men, etc., but they’re just not able to force many takeaways. They’re like the pitcher throwing a perfect slider on the outside corner that the hitter gets a single on. That’s the first of Dorfman’s theories that can help explain why a high takeaway output is hard to replicate from year to year—good execution does not always mean good results.
The second aspect from Dorfman is what he calls “The Circuit” pictured below:
Here, Dorfman draws a distinction between what is and what isn’t within an athlete’s control. How the player approaches the play is entirely within their control. In baseball, this can be demonstrated with the following two contrasting thoughts:
“This infield’s terrible. Nobody will be able to field the ball today.” OR “I want to make sure I’m charging the ball today.”
Deciding between these two approaches to a play (preparing to use the quality of the field as an excuse or taking responsibility for the play) is something the player either consciously or subconsciously decides on during the course of a game.
The same is true for the response. In football, if the referee makes a questionable pass interference call on the defense, the defender can choose to complain and lose focus or move on to the next play. Again, this response is entirely within the control of the athlete.
What is not controllable for the athlete, though, is the result. As alluded to in the Goethe quote, good execution does not always guarantee a favorable result. The pitcher who made the perfect pitch on the outside corner could not control the fact that the batter had a solid approach and put a good swing on the ball. But he could control how he responded to that result and approached the next hitter (i.e. “that single is out of my control. If I keep executing my pitches, I’ll be fine”).
Now let’s connect this to Northwestern. The team approaches a game on defense trying to force turnovers (practicing punching the ball out, etc.), but when they don’t get the desired result (forcing the takeaway), the response is “we need to do a better job of taking the ball away.” There’s an inconsistency here, though: the defense doesn’t fully control the act of taking the ball away. As mentioned above, part of a turnover usually requires at least one opposing player to make a mistake. The defense can’t fully control whether the offense makes that mistake.
I’m not saying creating turnovers isn’t a factor that helps a team win games—it absolutely is, especially when they come at critical moments like they often did for Northwestern last year. In Dorfman’s circuit though, the result (the turnover) is something the players can’t control. Although strong fundamentals on defense should generally lead to more takeaways, they haven’t been as numerous as they were for the ‘Cats last year.
Of course turnovers are an important component to winning football teams, but they shouldn’t be viewed as “an ingredient” to the recipe of winning. Northwestern’s defense has to stay the course: fundamentally, there hasn’t been much difference in how they’ve played this year from a season ago. Paddy Fisher had four forced fumbles in 2017 and four more in 2018. He has one through seven games this year, yet has still played at a very high level. The “ingredient” is playing fundamentally sound football. The turnovers (and the wins) will come.