DeKalb | “Defense wins championships” is a common phrase in football, and the NIU defense is taking the phrase pretty seriously.
The Huskies’ defense forced three turnovers, and the offense turned those turnovers into points — three field goals, including the game
“We put a ton of emphasis on forcing turnovers,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. “We talk about it every day. We practice it every day. We try our best to get as many as we can on every opportunity we get.”
With only four returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies defense was not presumed to be the strength of the team early on, but it made its case in the season-opening win. After giving up 25 or more points only four times last season — twice on the road and twice at neutral sites — they gave up 27 points to the Hawkeyes but responded by winning the turnover battle, 3-1.
“Forcing turnovers is the second most important thing in my mind,” Niemann said. “The first most important thing is how many points you allow. After that, the second most important thing is how many takeaways you can get.”
Last season the Huskies gained 27 turnovers for an average of 1.9 turnovers per game. With three turnovers generated in the first game, the defense is currently above average in that department, and Niemann, who calls the defensive formations, knows the defense has what it takes to continue creating turnovers since it places so much emphasis on it.
“There are all kinds of techniques we use,” Niemann said. “You know, it depends on your position a little bit and the kinds of situations you’re in on the field, but defensive backs, linebackers and d-linemen all are taught special techniques to try and get the ball.”
And they all got involved in the turnover battle against Iowa. Redshirt junior linebacker Jamaal Bass forced a first-quarter fumble, which was recovered by junior defensive end Jason Meehan. Senior defensive tackle Ken Bishop tipped a third-quarter pass, leading to an interception by redshirt junior safety Dechane Durante. Senior safety Jimmie Ward added the final, and most crucial, turnover, intercepting a pass late in the fourth quarter.
The Huskies surrendered 458 yards to the Hawkeyes, which may seem like a lot since they gave up 450 yards or more only five times in 14 games last season; however, head coach Rod Carey was impressed with the defense’s effort throughout the game in a college football world ruled by offenses.
“I think offenses today are really good,” Carey said. “...I think giving up 450 yards in those [hot] conditions and some of the situations that we were in on defense is pretty good.”
The Huskie defense stepped up big in the first game, helping lead the team to victory. If it can continue with the defensive pressure and generate turnovers, the Huskies will be in line to win every game.
“I think any time the defense forces turnovers we’re going to be successful,” Carey said.