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Fumble! Is Northwestern Lucky or Talented?


Northwestern's 2009 season was chockful of miraculous comebacks: NU's weapon? The forced fumble. Against Purdue, NU trailed by 18, yet five forced fumbles allowed the Wildcats to fight back and win the game 27-21. Against Iowa, the Cats trailed 14-0 - but an end zone fumble by Ricky Stanzi gave NU seven points as they would fight back for the win - giving Hawkeye fans memories of the year before, when their team fumbled the ball four times to allow NU to fight back from 17-3 for the win. And against Auburn, two fumbles in the game's last four minutes allowed NU to complete a 14-point comeback and have an opportunity to attempt a field goal to win the game in regulation. Overall, NU forced a whopping 26 fumbles, including 13 which they recovered - good for second in the conference. NU also coughed up the ball 13 times off of fumbles, but the timing is what killed: nine times, NU was losing or tied when they forced and recovered a fumble, and they came in droves. When NU trailed, they had a freakish knack for forcing fumbles, and also had a freakish knack for recovering the ball - against Purdue, Iowa ('08 and '09), and Auburn, NU forced 13 fumbles and recovered 12 of them.

To some, this is a sign of NU's tenacity. But the argument can easily be spun in calling NU a lucky team. And it has, by this guy, and by numerous Iowa fans. It's not a stretch of the imagination - amongst Big Ten level players, fumbles are freak accidents most of the time, and when the odds are stacked in your favor the way NU has had them stacked

Writing a post, I was watching highlights of NU's Outback Bowl victory, and what struck me was what occured on the fumble that gave NU the ball while the score was tied 35-35. From my vantage point in the stands, I didn't even see him fumble the ball - just the rejoicing NU players - so I assumed it was a freak pop out. But the replay revealed something different: Auburn's receiver, Demond Washington, was running it back, and appeared to be on his way down, wrapped up by Brad Phillips. But as Washington fell, linebacker David Nwabuisi, who was trailing the play, caught up to him, put both his hands on the ball, and pulled up with all his force. It was a deliberate strip, one Washington couldn't prevent against, and it gave NU the ball back.

Which got me wondering: how much of NU's tendency to infect the opponent with fumbleitis is luck, and how much is skill? 

I looked at video of 15 fumbles NU forced and recovered over the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and sorted them into one of three categories: Luck, for just those blind luck plays where somebody screws up and the ball comes loose (which, of course, tend to be primarily the fault of a player on the other team, but can definitely be construed as lucky for Northwestern), Good Hit, for plays where the ball comes loose as result of a particularly vicious tackle, but not one where the defender made any intentional attempt on the ball, and Strip, for when the Northwestern player deliberately attempts to seperate defender and ball - and does so. 

I had hoped to use ESPN3, but they appear to have purged their college football games from their database, so, instead, I'm using NUBears' highlight reels of NU victories. 


Northwestern, 27, Iowa, 22

Forced Fumbles: 4

Recovered Fumbles: 4

Points off fumbles: 13

Fumble No. 1: Time Stamp: 0:04. Fumbled by Ricky Stanzi, unforced, recovered by John Gill

This is a pretty blatant botched snap under center that Gill is lucky enough to hop on. NU wouldn't go onto score, so, no biggie.

Cause: Luck. Major sheer luck. This shouldn't be called a forced fumble.

Fumble No. 2: Time stamp: 1:58. Fumbled by Andy Brodell, forced by Jeravin Matthews and Phil Brunner, recovered by Jeravin Matthews

Not much of an angle here, but from what we can see, there's no deliberate attempt on the ball. Matthews nearly whiffs on his initial attempt to tackle Brodell, but Brunner finishes off the job, Matthews spots the ball having come out, and hops on it. I see no attempted strip, nor do I see a reason that a long snapper and wide receiver should be able to force a fumble by the sheer force of their hit, so I'll chalk this one up to an error on Brodell. NU would get a touchdown with the good field position, so this cost the Hawks.

Cause: Luck. 

Fumble No. 3: Time Stamp: 3:42. Fumbled by Amari Spievey, forced by Vince Browne, recovered by Jeravin Matthews. (Again!)

Man, who knew Jeravin had such a nose for the ball! START JERAVIN! Anyway, this is a pretty inexcusable fumble. Browne breaks through the wedge completely unblocked, but this isn't an enormous hit: he slows down almost all the way to square up to the returner and bring him down, so it's not like he has a huge amount of momentum, and the hit ends up being from behind, so he didn't intentionally strip. Most likely, he randomly got a hand on the ball attempting to wrap up the return man, because the ball pops out with some force. Amado Villarreal would miss a chip shot field goal on the ensuing possession.

Cause: possibly the sheer manchildness of Vince Browne, more likely, Luck. 

Fumble No. 4: Time Stamp: 4:22. Fumbled by Shonn Greene, forced by Brad Phillips, recovered by Corbin Bryant.

Ahhh, the famous Brad Phillips on Shonn Greene hit. Greene spins out of an attempted tackle by Mike Dinard, leaving him vulnerable and with his head down, not suspecting Brad Phillips to be coming in at full speed. The hit might have been helmet-to-helmet, it might not have, but the point is, it wasn't ruled that way, and Greene got knocked out cold by the hit and the ball came out immediately. 

Cause: Good (potentially illegal, but still good) Hit.

Conclusion: This isn't reminiscient of what you'll see later in the post. The relentless ballhawking you'll see from the 2009 team isn't present against Iowa in 2008. NU squeaked out of the win with a good hit, a possibly missed call, and a lot of errors on the part of Iowa. 

Northwestern, 27, Purdue, 21

Forced Fumbles: 6

Recovered Fumbles: 5

Points off Fumbles: 17

Fumble No. 1: Time Stamp, 1:31. Fumbled by Aaron Valentin, forced by David Arnold, recovered by Jordan Mabin.

Valentin had accounted for 14 of Purdue's 17 points, and was looking dangerous on this return after bouncing off some attempted tackles out to the 23-yard line. Then, David Arnold reaches him. Arnold sees Valentin is trying to create space with a stiff arm - which had worked earlier, as he'd caught a ball and shed a Brad Phillips tackle at the line of scrimmage and ran 67 yards to paydirt. However, stiff arming somebody obviously leaves the ball vulnerable, so Arnold sees this and swipes down on the ball with his left arm. Smart play, textbook strip, and NU would get a field goal out of it. 

Cause: Strip.

Fumble No. 2: Time Stamp: 2:39. Fumbled by Jaycen Taylor, forced by Brad Phillips, recovered by Brian Peters

Less than a minute of game time later - but over a minute of youtube video time, oddly enough - Purdue tried to run into the halftime break with an eight-point lead. Phillips meets Taylor at the line of scrimmage, and is bringing him down. He hit Taylor from the side, leaving his dominant arm on Taylor's front, and his left arm on the back. He has the play over with - Taylor is at this point falling over, and has no hopes of getting out of the tackle. So as he's disengaging from the tackle, Phillips figures it can't hurt to give a little rip at the ball with his right arm. It works, comes loose, and NU entered the half down merely five.

Cause: Strip. 

Fumble No. 3: Time Stamp, 3:27. Fumbled by Cortez Smith, unforced, recovered by someone I believe to be Demetrius Dugar.

This was a freak play, and the only time Demos' rugby style punting has ever significantly helped Northwestern. The ball is skipping along on the ground, and the ball hits the leg of Purdue's Smith as he tries to keep the gunners from getting to the return man. This easily could have happened to an NU player - which would have resulted in great field position for the Boilermakers - instead, although Smith immediately realizes his error, he can't get to the ball fast enough and NU comes up with it, leading to another Stefan Demos field goal.

Cause: Blind sodding luck.

Fumble No. 4: Time Stamp, 4:46. Fumbled by Jeff Lindsay, forced by Brad Phillips (surprise!), and apparently recovered by Phillips as well according to the box score.

Lindsay, a tight end, catches the ball, secures it, and turns and starts to run. It just so happens that as soon as he turns, he's hit by Phillips, whose hand - seemingly unintentionally - comes down on top of the ball, knocking it loose. Maybe it's something about Phillips' tackling style that causes his hand to end up on top of the ball, but whatever it is, Lindsay doesn't really have a chance of holding on to it here, and I'll chalk it up to the luck of Phillips' hand coming down exactly where it does when he seemed just to be grasping for Lindsay. NU doesn't make anything of it though, carrying that two-point deficit into the fourth quarter.

Cause: Luck.

Fumble No. 5: Time Stamp: 5:00. Fumbled by Joey Elliott, forced by Quentin Davie, recovered by Corey Wootton.

It's pitiful football that leaves Davie completely untouched on his way to Elliott:

NU blitzes seven, gambling that three defenders can guard Purdue's three wide receivers in a trips bunch off the bottom of the screen. The play appears to be a designed roll out to the left to hit one of these guys, possibly for a screen. The play is covered though, and Elliott has nowhere to go after having rolled out. The plays shift to the left leaves Davie - who was blitzing from the right - completely, utterly unblocked. Purdue's right guard has the chance to block him out, but with the play shifted in the other direction, he doesn't see him, and picks up David Arnold - NU's left linebacker - instead, leaving Davie coming in from the blind side. Elliott only sort of becomes aware of Davie at the last second, but foolishly decides to attempt to throw as Davie is arriving, with his arm unprotected, the ball comes out, NU picks it up, scores a touchdown on the next drive, and ends up winning the game. It's an immensely stupid play by Purdue, but a great hit by Davie at exactly the moment Elliott was about to pass to force the fumble.

Cause: Good Hit.

Conclusion: When NU went down, they became aware that they needed to force turnovers, and did, leading to points. The last two turnovers are equal parts serendipitous and good tackling - sometimes things just go your way, especially when Purdue already seemed bent on self-destructing and NU was amped up after coming back most of the way already. 

Northwestern 16, Miami (OH) 6

Fumbles Forced: 3

Fumbles Recovered: 1

Points off Fumbles: 6

Time Stamp, 2:17. Fumbled by Zac Dysert, forced by Quentin Davie, recovered by Brian Peters

Davie flushes Dysert out of the pocket, but Dysert doesn't take care to secure the football, and it pops out as soon as he gets hit. This hit looks an awful lot like the Vince Browne one from the Iowa game up above - not much oomph in it, possibly a lucky hand somewhere in there, but mainly just a bad play by the ballhandler.

Cause: Luck.

Northwestern, 17, Iowa, 10

Fumbles Forced: 2

Fumbles Recovered: 2

Points off Fumbles: 7

Fumble No. 1: Time Stamp, 1:11. Fumbled by Ricky Stanzi, forced by Corey Wootton, recovered by Marshall Thomas.

You've likely seen this play a million times: It had Iowa fans crying dirty play on Wootton's part, and ended up reviving NU's chances in the game and their season, while ruining Iowa's. I've written about this naked bootleg, about how Stanzi needlessly freezes up instead of trying to get rid of the ball, etc., etc. First off, I find it highly unlikely that - although it's quite fun to imagine Wootton as a merciless killer - that he intentionally injured anybody. Let's get that out of the way. Secondly, by the time Stanzi's leg buckles, the ball is out of his hand: Wootton inadvertently hammers the ball with his right hand trying to bring down Stanzi, and the football relevance of the play is over, and the ball luckily bounds over to Marshall Thomas. It's a vicious hit, but Wootton wasn't aiming to get the ball out of Stanzi's hands - just to tackle him. If anything, Stanzi moves the ball into Wootton's hands. This is one of multiple hits you can consider to be either just lucky hand placement or good tackling - somewhere in between, so, to piss off Iowa fans, we'll call it a good hit. 

Cause: Good Hit.

Fumble No. 2: Time Stamp, 3:40. Fumbled by Brandon Wegher, forced by Brad Phillips (!), recovered by Marshall Thomas.

Iowa goes with the draw on second and long hoping for anything. Now, Phillips is credited with the forced fumble, but to my eye, the person who causes it is in fact Quentin Williams. Phillips is the one who tackles Wegher after about a five-yard gain. Phillips is bringing Wegher down when Williams - who had been the weak side defensive end - catches up to the play and rams the entire right side of his body into Wegher as he's going down, including a stray arm into the ball area. I think this is what forces the ball loose - the umpire is in the way, and he must have made the right call, because he has a better view than we do. I can't see what happened really, and although this is probably a good hit on Williams' part, the video evidence is inconclusive. Either way, it doesn't lead to points.


Conclusion: It's bad if your quarterback gets sacked in the end zone. It wasn't really anybody's fault that Stanzi dropped the ball - just bad luck of having your hand in the wrong place at the wrong time, that, and the vicious nature of Wootton's hit brought NU back.

Northwestern, 33, Wisconsin, 31

Forced Fumbles: 1

Fumbles Recovered: 1

Points off Fumbles: 0

Time Stamp 4:44. Fumbled by John Clay, forced (technically) by Quentin Davie, recovered by Brian Peters.

Davie gets blocked out of the play by the fullback, but it looks like Clay accidentally smacks the fullback in the head with the football, causing it to pop loose. 

Cause: Luck. 

Auburn, 38, Northwestern, 35

Fumbles Forced: 3

Fumbles Recovered: 2

Points off Fumbles: 7

Fumble No. 1: Time Stamp, 4:46. Fumbled by Ben Tate, forced by Brad Phillips (!), recovered by Sherrick McManis.

Brad Phillips hand, Ben Tate's ball. If you're going to run at Brad Philips, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE TWO HANDS ON THE BALL. Two. TWO. Phillips doesn't try to tackle Tate: he just pokes his hand in there and knocks the ball away, simple as whistling dixie. NU scores, tied game.

Cause: Strip. 

Fumble No. 2: Time Stamp, 7:08. Fumbled by Demond Washington, forced by David Nwabuisi, recovered by Jordan Mabin.

This is the strip I talked about in the beginning of the post. Nwabuisi sees Washington on his way down and decides to go for the strip, and it works. Bad camera angle, but I saw it on TV the other night - it's a very intentional strip.

Cause: Strip

Conclusion: Both the fumbles that allowed NU back into the game against Auburn were straight out strips of the ball. It's no coincidence that Auburn players made two horrendous mistakes in a matter of seconds - NU was gunning for turnovers.



Final tally: Total Fumbles: 15

Fumbles forced by Luck: 7

Fumbles forced by good hits: 3

Fumbles caused by strips: 4

Inconclusive: 1


Conclusion: Yes, about half of the fumbles NU forced were just sheer luck or dumb plays by the opposition: that number could have been higher, considering the three ones I termed "good hits" weren't caused by players gunning for fumbles either, just by lucky hand placement and force. 

But when Northwestern was trailing against Purdue and Auburn, you can see quite clearly that the defense begins to enter a mentality based on keeping hands active and trying to pry the ball free from its carrier. You'll notice two something similar about all four ones I termed "strips."

1. NU is desperate for points in each. Not looking for insurance, but looking to start or finish various comebacks.

2. The tackler has the rusher under control. In none of the four instances does the attempt at a strip put the tackle in jeopardy. If you reach for a steal in basketball, you're gambling, because it puts you out of position to properly defend and keep your man from getting by you. (I still do it anyway because of my freakishly long arms that allow me to get a lot of steals or swat you even if you have a step on me.) But that's not the case here. 

This leads me to believe NU's seeming great luck in having forced and recovered an absurdly high proportion of turnovers in big comebacks isn't due to some sort of benevolent higher power. I've never coached (or played) football at an organized level, so I'm not sure if this is something you learn in middle school, but I wouldn't be surprised if NU puts special emphasis on telling defenders that when you're down, you need to start thinking "strip" as soon as you have the ballcarrier under control. Some things, you can't control: Purdue's collapse against Northwestern was equal parts offensive ineptitude and NU ballhawking. But NU's ability to smell out fumble situations isn't something that should be underestimated, or cast aside as mere coincidence. Brad Phillips didn't force five fumbles this year just because he's a big hitter, or because running backs let their guards down when he was coming. He3 just has a really good knack for knocking the ball away from people who think they have it secure. And that skill guided NU to victory against Purdue - and nearly again in Tampa.