Pinpointing the reasons why the University of Wisconsin football team has struggled with turnovers this season is difficult.
Multiple factors were in play for each of the 17 giveaways this season — tied for third-most in the FBS. Some factors UW players can control, some they can’t.
Turnovers are all but guaranteed to be a deciding component in Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against No. 9 Iowa (6-1, 3-1), which has feasted on opponents’ turnovers this season. The Hawkeyes are tied for the FBS lead with 21 turnovers created on defense and lead the FBS with 16 interceptions. Just fewer than 35% of the points Iowa has scored this season have come off turnovers.
UW (4-3, 2-2) has won three consecutive games despite committing at least one turnover in each, but it may not have that leeway at Camp Randall Stadium this weekend.
“I just think that starts with practice,” junior tailback Chez Mellusi said. “Certain ball security things that we need to do a better job, and I think that’s just taking care of the football. I think that’s the biggest thing. That’s how you win football games, and I think that’s something that needs to be emphasized.”
Some turnovers are simply the product of a defensive player’s effort, jumping a passing route or attacking the ball during a tackle. But turnovers most often are born from four issues an offense can address on its own: ball security, trying to do too much on a given play, a quarterback forcing a pass into coverage or a missed assignment leading to a clean hit on a ball carrier.
UW’s 30-13 win at Purdue last week featured each of these issues, and the Badgers have to ensure they don’t give away the ball and momentum to an Iowa offense that’s struggling to produce without the benefit of turnovers.
Freshman running back Braelon Allen was guilty of not securing the ball well enough against his body on his first fumble last week, and he tried to fight for extra yards when surrounded by defenders when he lost his second fumble last week.
On the first, Allen didn’t have his left elbow tight to his body as he attempted to fight off cornerback Dedrick Mackey on his run toward the goal line in the first quarter. Mackey didn’t go for the tackle, opting to punch down on the ball, which bounced out of bounds at the 1-yard line. UW was fortunate to keep the ball — it’d have been a touchback for Purdue if it rolled out of the end zone.
Allen collided with cornerback Jamari Brown, who also attacked the ball instead of going for a tackle later in the first quarter. Allen attempted to spin away as other Purdue defenders swarmed, but Brown ripped out the ball and the Boilermakers recovered. Allen also fumbled at Illinois, fighting for yards with a defensive lineman dragging him down before linebacker Tariq Barnes punched the ball free.
“It’s definitely something I have to work on now,” Allen said. “The position I put myself in, I’m going to have to deal with that for the rest of the season. My mindset’s going to be obviously to keep getting those extra yards, but when I feel someone tugging on the ball, I’ve got to hang on to it so we can go down.”
Allen said he hasn’t lost any confidence in carrying the ball, knowing former UW stars like Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor had fumbling issues during their careers. He said he’s still going to be aggressive through contact.
Badgers redshirt sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz hasn’t thrown an interception in two weeks, partially a product of only throwing 23 passes in those contests, but still a positive after throwing seven picks in the first five games.
He knows Iowa’s zone defense is hoping to read his eyes and jump routes, so he’ll have to be smart with his ball placement and throw with good timing. He also can’t force the ball into tight windows, which he did against Notre Dame when things snowballed and he finished with four interceptions.
Mertz also has five fumbles this season, including one that was returned for a Purdue touchdown. Running back Brady Schipper missed his assignment to pick up Brown on a blitz, and his hit on Mertz caused the fumble. But Mertz knows he has to protect the ball against pressure.
“I’ve just got to secure it and just go down with it, just take that sack instead of trying to extend a little bit,” Mertz said. “It’s a different thing on each of those.”
Luck also is a factor in turnover creation — a fumble being recovered by the defense instead of the offense and so forth — and UW’s defense was on the unlucky side of things until last week. It only had created four takeaways over the first six games, recovering two of four opponents’ fumbles and dropping multiple chances at interceptions before creating five turnovers last week.
UW’s punt return unit has given away the ball once and came close to another fumble after a muffed catch last week. Expect Iowa to force returner Dean Engram to catch the ball, hoping to cause a turnover chance.
Iowa has three games this season in which it has created just one takeaway — a 30-7 win over Kent State, a 24-14 win over Colorado State and its 24-7 loss against Purdue.
“Obviously you don’t want to turn the ball over,” Mertz said. “That’s kind of the stress. You say it every week, you don’t want to turn it over. You make that a point of emphasis for an offense. So for us, it’s not a, ‘Oh gosh, we can’t turn it over.’ We still have to go cut it loose and go play.”