Blackshirts find takeaways have gone away

Husker cornerback Joshua Kalu got hands on a couple of passes Saturday, and so did a few teammates. But the Huskers went a second straight game without a takeaway. The defense has forced just five for the season — the team’s sixth takeaway came on special teams.

LINCOLN — Joel Stave put a little too much air under a first-quarter pass Saturday, and the throw sailed right to Nebraska safety Nate Gerry.

Gerry, with nothing but open real estate in front of him, dropped what would have been his eighth career interception.

Three or four other times Saturday, the football found the hands of Husker defensive backs — one even ricocheted to both Joshua Kalu and Byerson Cockrell — only to next find the ground.

In a game begging for game-changing plays, the Nebraska defense couldn’t get the one that might have changed it — and Wisconsin eventually found its way to the 23-21 win at Memorial Stadium.

It was the second straight game in which the Huskers failed to force a turnover. The defense has two takeaways in the last four games and five through the first half of the season.

NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker says it’s one of those things that don’t always make sense or follow patterns.

“Sometimes, when you do get turnovers they seem to come in bunches,” Banker said. “Then other times, the faucet seems to turn off.”

Nebraska is tied for No. 103 nationally with six turnovers gained, one of which came on a fumbled punt return by South Alabama. For perspective, 35 teams have forced 12 or more through six games and another 20 have produced at least 10.

The play before the Kalu-Cockrell chance Saturday, linebacker Chris Weber was right in a passing alley as Stave zipped a ball to Robert Wheelright. Weber didn’t grab it, and it was clear by his reaction that he knew he’d let an opportunity slide.

Even though Wisconsin ran 84 plays Saturday, the Huskers never jarred the football loose.

Banker said NU hasn’t approached takeaways any differently in practice, still making them an emphasis with tackling drills, stripping drills and a focus on being aggressive to the ball and aware of the ball.

Eventually, he thinks, they will come.

“I’ve had people ask the other way around, ‘Hey, why you getting all these turnovers?’” Banker said. “I say, ‘Shhh! Don’t talk about it too much because they’ll all of a sudden go away.’”

Banker would welcome some good luck after NU spent the first half of the season trying to get its legs defensively.

A play here or there might have gotten the defense off the field at a good time. An interception or fumble might have fed some confidence.

The Wisconsin game was no different.

“When you’re running the ball like they do, with good backs ... I mean, they’re all on scholarship, too,” Banker said. “In the passing game, you’ve got to be close and get your hand on balls. I thought Kalu had a chance on a couple, because he’s a ballhawk. He got his hand on the ball a couple times.”

Banker said the Blackshirts will just keep working at it.

“We’ve had two interceptions taken away by penalties that the league has come back and told us they weren’t penalties,” he said. “So that would be two more in the books.”

Nebraska never needed a takeaway more than Saturday in the fourth quarter. The Badgers drove into NU territory on each of their four possessions, netting a touchdown and two field goals, the latter being the game-winner with 4 seconds left.

“Wisconsin executed a couple more plays than us in the fourth quarter,” NU linebacker Marcus Newby said. “Hats off to them, they’re a good team.”

It also was possible that a short-handed Husker defense wore down, with several players visibly tired on the last couple of series. Banker didn’t want to make that any kind of excuse.

“It was a tough, physical game,” Banker said. “It doesn’t matter. When you’re out there in a street fight, when you’re out there in competition and you’re on the field, we’ve got to just go out and compete and go play.”

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