One of Jerry Kill’s favorite maxims as he roams the Gophers football practice field speaks to the importance of minimizing turnovers: “Ball security, job security!”
The Gophers ranked tied for 15th nationally in turnover margin last season at plus-10. This season they are minus-2, tied for 88th nationally.
Their troubles holding onto the ball almost cost them last week’s game against Ohio, as the Gophers fumbled six times, recovering all but one. Kill knows improving in this area will be crucial to his team’s success in Big Ten play, starting Saturday.
“We turn over the ball against Northwestern, we won’t win the game,” Kill said Tuesday.
The No. 16 Wildcats have the nation’s third-best scoring defense, allowing only 8.8 points per game, and are tied for 28th in takeaways, with eight.
What makes this especially challenging for the Gophers is they have a host of underclassmen who frequently handle the football.
Their top two running backs (Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks) and three of their emerging receivers (Rashad Still, Isaiah Gentry and Melvin Holland Jr.) are freshmen. Those five, in fact, accounted for 63 percent of the yardage gained against Ohio.
Smith has yet to fumble in 73 times toting the ball. Brooks fumbled twice against Ohio but recovered both, and those came on the kickoff return, where he was subbing for the injured Antonio Johnson.
Sophomore punt returner Craig James has fumbled four times in the past two games. The Gophers recovered all but one of those, but that one was deep in their territory, leading right to an Ohio touchdown. The Gophers have fumbled 13 times, and their six lost fumbles are the most in the Big Ten.
“We’ve got to do a better job from a coaching aspect there,” said Kill, who had senior KJ Maye join James on punt returns late in last week’s game.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner has thrown only two interceptions this year, but he has fumbled five times, losing three.
“Especially going into a game like Northwestern, a team that doesn’t have too many mistakes, we’ve got to minimize ours,” Leidner said. “Just in practice, emphasizing ball security, holding the ball high and tight, and being smart with the football from a quarterback standpoint.”
The Gophers are 20-2 under Kill when they win the turnover battle. Entering the season, they were only 2-17 under Kill in games when losing the turnover battle, but they beat Kent State and Ohio the past two weeks despite losing it 3-0 and 1-0, respectively.
As good as the Gophers have been on defense this year, that’s two games in a row without a takeaway.
“I’m not saying defense doesn’t have anything to do with turnovers, but I think well-coached offenses don’t turn the ball over,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “So I’m not one to lose as much sleep over turnovers. If we get them, it’s like Christmas, OK.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Gophers have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, and he added that he was impressed with their new running back tandem of Smith and Brooks.
“It just looks like your typical Jerry Kill, tough, physical, very talented, play their tails off, don’t beat themselves kind of football team,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald could have used those same words to describe his team. The Wildcats have bounced back from back-to-back 5-7 seasons to sit 4-0, with impressive victories over Stanford and Duke. Last week brought a 24-19 scare against Ball State, though.
Fitzgerald pointed to his team’s three first-half turnovers and said, “I told the guys that after the game, ‘We do that the next eight games, we’re going to get not only beat, we’re going to get embarrassed.’ ”