CHAMPAIGN — Jonathan Taylor's fourth-quarter run was supposed to be the beginning of the end for Illinois on Saturday.
His eight-yard gain on third-and-3 to the Illinois 17-yard line on second down would have given the Badgers a new set of downs with a nine-point lead. Conceivably, that would have led to at least a field goal with just over seven minutes left.
Instead, Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen hopped on Taylor's back, dug into his mental repertoire and recalled a seemingly small detail from his scouting report: When the Heisman hopeful goes to the ground, he sticks his arm out a bit to brace his fall, leaving just enough of a window for a defender to get a good swing on the football in the hopes of knocking it loose.
Hansen popped the ball out, Isaiah Gay recovered and four plays later Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters sidestepped a defensive lineman and hit Josh Imatorbhebhe in the end zone to cut the Badgers' lead to two points. The rest is history and Illinois pulled the biggest upset of the college football season.
“If a running back has been known to fumble, I try to find the tapes or plays of how they fumble or how they've struggled with ball security and things like that,” Hansen said. “I wouldn’t say that’s a huge knock against Jonathan Taylor, but that’s something that’s come up at times with him. A lot of players are a little bit loose with the ball. A lot of great running backs are. If you’re able to take advantage of that, it can give you a big opportunity.”
But Hansen's forced fumble didn't come in isolation. The junior linebacker has made a habit of jarring the football loose. He leads the nation with seven forced fumbles, which are the second-most in a season in Illini history behind only Whitney Mercilus' school record of nine in 2011, and is the third-most in a season in Big Ten history (since 2000). His 1.00 forced fumbles per game average is on pace to break the NCAA record (since 2000) for forced fumbles per game. The current mark is 0.83 by Louisville's Elvis Dumervil in 2000. He has three more forced fumbles than any other player in the nation, and as many or more forced fumbles as 97 FBS teams have on the season.
If he's not punching the ball out of the hands of an opponent, he's swatting it out of the hands of a quarterback looking to throw — like he did to Wisconsin's Jack Coan.
This knack for forcing fumbles hasn't always existed. He forced one in 12 games last season — against Minnesota, which was also the first of his career. He forced two as a senior at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Fla., and two as a junior. But before this season began, Hansen made a list of goals. That list included impact plays like forced fumbles, interceptions and sacks. Then came a shift in his mindset — one that lines up with a core philosophy of head coach Lovie Smith — to make a conscious effort to force more turnovers.
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“I kind of didn’t understand how important it actually is," Hansen said. "Until you start getting them, it shows up and it’s able to change the game. It’s the biggest type of play you can make on defense. That’s the way you can impact the game the most, not necessarily forced fumbles, but any type of turnover. That’s the quickest way you can change the game on defense."
Forcing turnovers matters to Smith. Inside the meeting room in the north end of Memorial Stadium a football extends from a wooden board attached to the wall. On the left of the football, the words "strip" run from top to bottom; on the right side "punch" reads in the same direction; "takeaways" run from left to right above the football and "yank" reads from left to right under the ball.
Smith coached cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman, who has 44 career forced fumbles, in Chicago. He has a history of coaching players to force turnovers. As a team, Illinois leads the country in forced fumbles (13) and fumble recoveries (12). There's a science to forcing the ball out, and it begins with a dedication to the idea.
“I think in order to have an opportunity to do that, you have to believe it first," Smith said. "You have to buy into taking the ball away. First, you have to buy in to: You can’t wait for a turnover, you have to take the ball away, then have that type of effort. You talk about running to the football, you have to get there to have an opportunity.
“I think it’s a trait you have. I think Jake has that."
Of course, there are times that Hansen and the defense put the desire to punch the ball out of a ball carrier's grasp on the back burner. At the goal line, for instance, Hansen focuses on "fitting up" the defender and preventing a touchdown. On third and short, the focus is on preventing a first down and getting off the field.
All things are situational.
“It comes with some risks, but I think the reward most of the time outweighs the risk," Hansen said.