Northern Illinois searching for ways to eliminate fumbles

Judging by the performances of the Northern Illinois and Temple football teams, Saturday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field just might resemble a game of hot potato.

Maybe something’s wrong with the football, because neither team can hold on to it.

The Owls have fumbled 15 times this season, losing eight of those. The Huskies have fumbled eight times, losing five. The inability to hold onto the football is part of the reason both teams have struggled to put up wins. The Owls are 0-5, the Huskies, 1-4.

“Turnovers have been our big bug-a-boo this season,” Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak said. “In the past we’ve been pretty good with it, but this year we’ve been awful. We haven’t generated many turnovers, either.”

“In terms of us protecting the football, it’s something we take a lot of pride in and work really hard at,” Temple coach Al Golden said.

Turnovers bit both teams hard last weekend.

The Huskies torched Central Michigan for 521 yards on 88 plays Saturday, but managed just 10 points. When the game counted most, the Huskies couldn’t convert.

With the ball on the Chippewas’ 1-yard line, Justin Anderson fumbled, spoiling a chance at a touchdown with the Huskies trailing 7-0 with 5:21 left in the first quarter.

“Certainly right now, we have not been a big-play team,” Novak said. “…You’ve got to be perfect for a long period of time to be able to score [on a drive].”

Two drives later, Patrick George fumbled on the Huskies’ own 28-yard line. The Chippewas capitalized, putting up a 28-7 lead by the end of the first quarter.

The Owls suffered a similar breakdown.

Running back Jason Harper was hit at the Temple 24-yard line, popping the ball into the backfield and eventually recovered in the Owls’ own end zone for an Army touchdown, giving the Black Knights a 14-7 lead in the second quarter. That marked the second consecutive week an opponent recovered a fumble in the Owls’ end zone.

The Owls rebounded to take a 21-21 tie into halftime.

Harper fumbled again late in the third quarter at Army’s 30-yard line, but Jamal Schulters picked off Black Knights quarterback Carson Williams to return the ball to the Owls. Still, the Owls couldn’t do anything that drive either, and the Black Knights ended up returning Jeff Wathne’s punt 85 yards for a touchdown and a 31-21 lead.

Travis Shelton returned the subsequent kickoff 42 yards to give the Owls good field position at their own 45-yard line. Adam DiMichele led the Owls into the red zone on a pair of rushes and two completions. He then hit wide receiver Dy’Onne Crudup with a pass, but Crudup fumbled the ball, again ending a chance for the Owls to even the score.

The Owls held Army to 154 yards rushing, their second-lowest total of the season. They held Bowling Green to just 96 rushing yards two games ago.

The Owls rush defense will be tested against Northern Illinois. The Huskies are third in the Mid-American Conference in rushing offense, averaging 160 yards per game. That’s without Garrett Wolfe, who led the nation in rushing last season and has since graduated.

“The offensive line makes it work” for them,” Golden said. “This will be a good test for our front four.”

Anderson is doing the rushing honors for the Huskies this season. Averaging 114 yards a game, he’s second in the MAC in rushing.

“I’ve been very pleased,” Novak said. “He’s had a lot of opportunities. I just worry about him holding up over the season. He’s taking a beating.”

If the Owls can put pressure on quarterback Jason Nicholson, he might just make a mistake. The junior signal-caller has thrown 10 interceptions this season, including four last week.

Nicholson’s interceptions, combined with the Huskies’ fumbling issues, have the team last in the MAC in turnover margin. The Owls are better, but not by too much. They’re ranked ninth in the 13-team MAC.

“Whoever can get [their turnovers] rectified the quickest, will probably win on Saturday,” Novak said.

John Kopp can be reached at

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