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Give and take

Emphasis on turnover margin pays off big for teams such as USC

Posted: Wednesday September 22, 2004 11:52AM; Updated: Wednesday September 22, 2004 3:14PM
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USC defense
USC's vaunted defense has caused four fumbles and picked off eight passes in three games this season.
Doug Benc/Getty Images

USC is the country's top-ranked team, in no small part due to its fetish for the football. It's apparent in everything from T-shirts the program special ordered for players -- which read "It's All About the Ball" -- to the countless ball-protection and ball-stripping drills the Trojans run in practice.

Consider, also, the annual rite of preseason camp, in which the new freshman class is given a single football to take care of 24 hours a day. As a rotation of frosh tote the pigskin around the field, the dining hall and the dorms, it is the upperclassmen's job to try to steal it away.

All of these efforts point to one key statistic. "Turnover margin has been our No. 1 emphasis since I've been at USC," said Pete Carroll, whose team has posted a nation's-best plus-1.33 turnover margin -- and, not coincidentally, two Pac-10 titles and one AP national championship -- over the three-year span in which he's served as head coach. "We feel that as you keep it going, you're going to be hard to beat."

All teams like to talk turnover margin. Next to field position, it might be the most frequently used term in coaches' press conference lexicon. But few teams are living the ideals of ball security and defensive takeaways quite like USC. At least that seemed true last weekend, otherwise known as Sloppy Saturday, when quarterbacks and running backs from coast-to-coast were doing everything but gift-wrapping footballs for opposing defensive players. To wit:

• At No. 7 West Virginia, a stellar defensive performance by Maryland was all for naught as its offense committed five turnovers. Terps lose, 19-16.

• In Raleigh, N.C., N.C. State's 256 offensive yards were spoiled by five turnovers, two of which (fumbles) led to Mike Nugent field goals in Ohio State's 22-14 win.

• In a 27-6 loss at Texas A&M, Clemson was responsible for four turnovers and not a single score in the first half.

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• While playing host to Notre Dame, Michigan State gave away six balls, including two to Tom Zbikowski, who had a 75-yard stripped-ball return for a touchdown and an interception to set up another score in a 31-24 Irish win.

• No. 18 Michigan barely survived San Diego State at home, coughing it up four times to the Aztecs in a come-from-behind 24-21 win.

As any coach will tell you, boosting turnover margin is no simple task. A quarterback's ability to avoid interceptions (and a defensive player's knack at collecting them) depend largely on the player's innate skills and game sense. Drills promoting ball security, on the other hand, run the gamut, and include wetting down footballs, employing slippery sleeves on footballs and various other machinations. But teams that have avoided the fumble bug so far this year say that the best defense is -- well, their own best defense.

"Our best tactic [for improving turnover margin] is what we call 'good-on-good,'" said Purdue receivers coach Bob DeBesse, whose offense hasn't given up the ball once this season. Whereas many teams have their first-team offense practice against the second-team defense and vice versa, the Boilermakers "have live situations every day, spring, summer and fall, in which the top guys on defense are going after our best ball carriers," DeBesse said. "In recent years, we've done a very good job of creating turnovers and takeaways, and when you have your offense going against that every day, you're gonna get better."

Indeed, the team that does not giveth is the often the one that taketh away. Texas is quickly becoming a model squad in that regard, thanks in part to fiery new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Last year, the Longhorns ranked 53rd in the nation in turnover margin, recovering 29 balls on defense and giving away 27 on offense. When he arrived, Robinson set out to make the Longhorns as aggressively ball-centric as they are naturally athletic.

"What we're really starting to do is get as many people around the football as possible, since the best thing for forcing turnovers is getting a lot of bodies on a guy," Robinson said. "That, and hitting hard."

These simple mantras seem to be rubbing off: In Texas' first two victories, its defense has nabbed two interceptions and recovered five fumbles -- including a ball that defensive tackle Larry Dibbles punched out of the hands of Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones to clinch a 22-20 win over the Razorbacks on Sept. 11. The 'Horns' offense, meanwhile, has yet to commit one turnover.

It's still early, so the NCAA's turnover-margin rankings -- which weigh the number of games played -- are still slightly skewed (see below). But one thing is certain -- teams from the Big East to the Big Sky are striving for the sort of ratios posted by the hottest team in America over the past two years.

"We don't have T-shirts, yet," joked Robinson, who coached with USC's Carroll at the University of the Pacific, N.C. State and the New York Jets. "We're in the infancy stage. But you can bet we're working on it."

NCAA's Top 20 Turnover Margins
(Through 9/18/04)
Rk. Team Fumbles
Margin Wins Losses
1 Southern Miss. 2 3 5 0 1 1 4.00 1 0
2 Texas 5 2 7 0 0 0 3.50 2 0
3 Oklahoma St. 6 4 10 0 0 0 3.33 3 0
4 USC 4 8 12 2 1 3 3.00 3 0
5 Hawaii 2 3 5 0 0 0 2.50 0 2
5 Stanford 3 4 7 2 0 2 2.50 2 0
7 Texas A&M 1 6 7 0 0 0 2.33 2 1
8 Michigan 5 9 14 3 5 8 2.00 2 1
8 Minnesota 2 5 7 1 0 1 2.00 3 0
8 Utah 4 3 7 0 1 1 2.00 3 0
11 Alabama 4 4 8 3 0 3 1.67 3 0
11 Arizona St. 2 5 7 0 2 2 1.67 3 0
11 Marshall 3 4 7 1 1 2 1.67 0 3
11 UCF 7 2 9 2 2 4 1.67 0 3
11 Virginia 3 3 6 0 1 1 1.67 3 0
11 South Carolina 5 4 9 3 1 4 1.67 2 1
17 UAB 2 4 6 1 2 3 1.50 1 1
17 Bowling Green 4 2 6 2 1 3 1.50 1 1
17 Miami (Fla.) 5 2 7 2 2 4 1.50 2 0
17 Purdue 1 2 3 0 0 0 1.50 2 0

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.