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Five Biggest Questions for Northwestern in 2020, No. 4: Can the defense force turnovers?

Much improvement is needed in this department.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Northwestern at Indiana Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the past few months, we’ve covered nearly every aspect of the upcoming Northwestern football season. This week, we continue our offseason coverage by looking at the five biggest questions surrounding Northwestern football in 2020.

Next up, we’ll take a look at the defense and its turnover margin this fall.

Considering how abysmal the 2019 season was, the defense was the lone bright spot as they often did all they could to try and help the offense out. The Wildcats return nine starters of what was a top-30 defense in the nation last year, in terms of yards per game.

Of course, context is important: given the huge margins that NU was often down by, opposing offenses would take their foot off the gas often and switch to a more run-heavy offense. But with the expected improvement overall, there is much to be excited about with this defense.

However, for Northwestern to make the leap into an elite Big Ten defense, the ‘Cats must force turnovers. Now that Northwestern will be facing ten conference teams, the defense must do all it can to help out the offense in terms of field position. This is where the turnovers come in.

Northwestern was towards the bottom of the FBS in terms of turnovers forced as they were tied for 114th with only 14 turnovers. Even more concerning is that Joe Gaziano by himself forced three fumbles and recovered two others. It is going to be a committee effort to replace the turnovers by Gaziano but also increase turnovers forced in general. There are some big shoes to step into, but the ‘Cats have the talent to be towards the top of the Big Ten in terms of turnovers forced.

Here is what needs to happen for Northwestern to force more turnovers and become the elite defense it has the potential to be:

Paddy Fisher must bounce back

Let’s address the elephant in the room: by Fisher’s standards, he had a subpar 2019 season across the board. From tackles to forced fumbles, it was all down. After consecutive seasons with 100+ tackles, he regressed to 88 this past season along with his forced fumbles dropping from four the previous two years to just one last year. This defense will go as Fisher goes, and he has a lot to prove to NFL scouts.

There is no doubt in my mind that he’ll bounce back and as captain, he is going to have to lead the defense to force more turnovers. Fisher, along with Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin must forced fumbles and be competitive in pass coverage. This is arguably one of the most experienced linebacker rooms in the Big Ten, and they must demonstrate their veteran savvy by forcing turnovers.

Earnest Brown IV must live up to his potential

The defensive line suffered a massive loss of Joe Gaziano, but there is more than enough talent to replace him. Northwestern was tied for 72nd in the nation in sacks last year with Gaziano by himself contributing over a third of those sacks.

The gap he left behind must be filled by Earnest Brown IV who has the potential to be an elite pass rusher as evidenced by his preseason All-Big Ten honors. To live up to his potential and make the necessary impact for the defense, avoiding injuries is imperative as Brown IV. Brown has NFL potential if he can piece it all together in his final season in Evanston.

If the Wildcats want to force turnovers, it all begins in the trenches. Brown and Samdup Miller must lead the charge in pressuring opposing QBs and forcing them into mistakes. Brown, and this unit as a whole, has the talent to help the rest of the defense out. Marty Long should be able to rotate guys in and out to keep the entire line fresh which is going to be especially important in a 10-game conference grind. With too much time, QBs will punish secondaries, no matter how talented they may be. The defensive line is the most critical piece of the defense in forcing turnovers for this upcoming year.

The secondary must take the next leap

Northwestern now has seasoned veterans at the safety positions in Travis Whillock and J.R. Pace. Along with an elite corner in Greg Newsome, the question comes in who will be the other corner. Between AJ Hampton or Cameron Ruiz, there will be quality options that emerge and more depth as a result.

However, the returning starters had zero interceptions last year, and that is unacceptable. The linebacker corp had more interceptions, which must change if Northwestern wants to up its poor seven-total interceptions from this past year. The defensive line pressuring the opposing quarterback means nothing if the secondary cannot capitalize on poor decisions and passes.