LINCOLN — For Carlos Davis, it was muscle memory.
He didn’t think. He just saw the ball on the ground, and leaped.
“There’s a drill we do every week, every Tuesday, we do a drill. We defeat the cut block twice, and then we jump on the ground and recover a fumble,” Davis said.
That pulsed through the junior’s mind on Saturday against Ohio State. Outside linebacker JoJo Domann came off the edge “licking his lips,” he said, and pummeled OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The ball popped loose, and there it was for Davis, lying dormant on the turf just like at practice.
“I just saw the ball on the ground and it was like muscle memory. I just jumped on it, recovered it, tightened it up, got the ball,” Davis said.
Getting the football out and jumping on it has been a focal point all season. But only now are balls actually hitting the turf. The Blackshirts forced four fumbles on Saturday. They recovered two of them. The extra possessions turned into 14 Nebraska points.
“They’re taking those (turnover) drills seriously,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said on Tuesday. “You watch the film of those turnover drills beginning of the year, it looks like the ‘Bad News Bears’ out there running around. Now it looks like a real football team.”
The Huskers are much more “ball aware,” Chinander said, a term that essentially means they’re more willing and able to punch balls out during the tackling process.
Nebraska has forced seven fumbles on the year, recovering five. That’s already a significant rise from the past few seasons.
In 2016 and 2017 combined, Nebraska recovered just six fumbles. And it wasn’t much better in 2015, when Nebraska forced seven fumbles and recovered five. And that’s nothing compared to Bo Pelini’s defenses. In 2014, Pelini’s final year, Nebraska forced 14 fumbles, recovering 10.
Nebraska wants to get back to those days.
“When we go to the sideline for timeouts and stuff, we’re harping on turnovers,” corner Lamar Jackson said.
He forced a fumble that wasn’t recovered. On a 7-yard gain, Jackson slipped his hand in between the ball and OSU running back Mike Weber’s forearm and pried the ball out. NU safety Antonio Reed dived for the ball, but swatted it out of bounds.
“All he had to do was hit it the opposite way into the field. Yeah, we gave him a little hard time, but we’re gonna get some more out this week, hopefully,” Jackson said.
Chinander’s new message isn’t just to dive on the ground for loose balls, but to fight and battle for possession. On Aaron Williams’ fumble recovery, Jackson flew into the pile and wrestled an Ohio State receiver off the ball so linebacker Luke Gifford and Williams could keep possession.
“Just getting on the ground isn’t enough,” Jackson said. “We need the ball out and we need to recover the ball, so we’re trying to do all that.”
Nebraska remains one of the worst teams in turnover margin in college football. The Huskers are sitting at minus-4 with three games left.
Illinois is at plus-3, tied for 38th in the country with Michigan State and a handful of other teams. Iowa sits at plus-4. So getting the ball out could change Nebraska’s fate these next three weeks.
“It’s definitely a focus,” Davis said. “We practice that every week. Every week getting those balls out. Actually every day trying to knock it out of the running backs’ hands, same with the DBs. So it’s just starting to pay off for us.”