Tillman provides inspiration for NIU defense

Huskies know turnovers like Bears cornerback produces will be huge in quest to upset Florida State

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Northern Illinois' defense has been paying close attention to the Bears this season, doing everything in their power to create turnovers that might affect the outcome of a game.

The patented "ball-punch" of Charles Tillman, the NFL-leading eight interceptions of Tim Jennings, the sacks and forced fumbles of Julius Peppers … the young Huskies have been working diligently to copy the Bears' techniques.

Northern Illinois has 15 interceptions, 40 sacks and 11 fumble recoveries in 13 games this season.

The Huskies will need all of the turnover help they can get to upset Florida State in Tuesday night's Orange Bowl. And the Bears can use more turnovers to assist their generally unproductive offense when they face the Lions on Sunday in a game that could determine their NFC playoff fate.

"We work on (creating turnovers) every day," NIU defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said Friday. "We work on it in Miami and we work on it at home. It's part of what we call our 'circuit,' which is the first thing we do coming out of special teams.

"We love for the players to see (the Bears stripping the ball) on TV because we think they will emulate it and produce good things for us on defense. That's a big part of what we try to do, take the ball away"

The Huskies (12-1) are 131/2-point underdogs to the Seminoles (11-2), meaning turnovers would be at a premium for NIU's defense.

"We have to find ways to get off the field on third down or by taking it away on first or second down, however we can get out of a drive," Niemann said. "Takeaways, obviously, can produce better field position for our offense."

Tillman has 10 forced fumbles this season, as well as three interceptions for touchdowns.

"I am incredibly impressed," Niemann said. "It's fun to watch; he's very good at it. Obviously it's a focal point of his game and something he thinks about through the duration of plays."

NIU defensive end Sean Progar has 81/2 sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles.

"Turnovers are huge in any game. If you can get 'em in a BCS game against an opponent like Florida State, you know it is going to be big," Progar said. "Charles Tillman has done an incredible job setting records doing that.

"But it is going to come down to tackling first. Punching the ball out comes second. We have to get them down and wrap them up. Secondly we have to come in and punch the ball out. You know they have some elusive guys on offense."

NIU safety Jimmie Ward, a first-team All-MAC performer, has come up with big plays during his career, including four blocked punts and four interceptions. He has three picks this season and a forced fumble.

"We work every day on stripping the ball," Ward said. "I watch Ed Reed (of the Ravens) and I watch the big name players. I will be trying to do the same thing."

Defensive back Demetrius Stone has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries to go with his 73 tackles this season.

"You can tell that it is something (Tillman) works on," Stone said of the takeaways. "Just like he works on his fundamentals of stripping the ball and punching the ball out, we work on stripping the ball and tackling."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34

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