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Missed Interceptions Key to Loss Against Michigan

Most of the talk surrounding Northwestern’s 27-19 triple-overtime loss to Michigan will focus on what happened (the miraculous field goal, the three overtimes, etc.) But what about what didn’t happen? Interceptions.

I counted five missed interceptions by NU—coach Pat Fitzgerald said he counted seven, but his standards are most definitely higher than mine—and any one of them, had they been caught, could have resulted in a different outcome for the Wildcats.

“We had our hand on the ball a lot as a defense, all the way down to the end in overtime, we create a fumble and it just didn’t seem like it was our day,” Fitzgerald said.

Coaches, players, and analysts alike hound on the fact that “turnovers win games,” and the statistics back them up: from 2002-2011, NFL teams that forced two more turnovers than their opponents had an 84 percent chance of winning. Because of the parity in college football compared to the NFL, the numbers may differ slightly (even with two more turnovers, Purdue is not going to have an 84 percent chance to beat Ohio State), but the sentiment holds true.

Through the first four games this year—all wins—NU intercepted the ball 10 times, or 2.5 per game. Through the next six games—all losses—NU intercepted the ball eight times, or 1.3 per game. However, four of those eight came in the game against Nebraska, meaning the five remaining games had only four interceptions, or 0.8 per game.

Fitzgerald seems to be as confused as the rest of us when it comes to the drop in interceptions of his defense.

“How do I explain it?” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t.”

The average number of passes intercepted per game in the NCAA this year is one. So through the first four games, NU was well above average. Through the next six games, NU was slightly above average. If you take out the Nebraska game, NU has been below average in interceptions for almost all of conference play this season.

Fumbles have not been as big of a factor for the Cats, as they have recovered only four fumbles this year—one in a win and three in losses.

So if it wasn’t clear before, it should be now—Northwestern needs to get back to its ball-hog ways of the first four games. Particularly next week against Michigan State, whose defense has dominated its opponents to the point of embarrassment at times this season, NU’s defense is going to have to give its offense as many opportunities with the ball as possible. Otherwise, the Cats can say goodbye to the idea of playing in the postseason this year.