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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Keys to Victory - Turnover Margin

Today my USC-week analysis focuses on turnovers. Turnovers have long been recognized as a major determinant of the outcome of a game. In Developing an Offensive Game Plan, Brian Billick suggests that a team with a positive turnover ratio in any given game has between a 75-85% better chance of winning a game than its opponent. Furthermore, in the 31 Super Bowls where one team won the turnover battle, that team is an amazing 29-2. The last team to win a Super Bowl but turn the ball over more than its opponent was the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV against the Rams

Turnovers are an important measurable to focus on for several reasons. First and foremost, recovering a fumble or intercepting a pass reduces the opportunities the opponent has to score while increasing the opportunities that your team has to put points on the board. But turnovers can also create a significant edge for a team in time of possession, which keeps one defense on the field longer while the other defense rests. In addition, turnovers can change momentum, and they can alter field position.

Turnovers involve an interaction between the giveaway-takeaway relationship of both the offense and defense. The advantage of a team who has a high takeaway margin is negated if its offense is giving up the ball at the same ratio. We often hear defenses often talk about creating turnovers. However, forcing fumbles and interceptions is often a more random occurrence. Come Saturday our defense can play hard, get to the ball carrier and try to strip the ball or get an interception. But those can come in bunches, and a team can go through periods where you do all of that and the other team still avoids committing turnovers. Because of this Nebraska should not rely on its defense to cause turnovers. We cannot count on a USC ball carrier fumbling, nor can we count on John David Booty throwing an interception.

As a result, when we prepare for this game we must concentrate on the other aspect of turnover margin – not giving the ball away. Nebraska needs to put a concerted effort into talking about and preparing for the ways in which USC will attempt to force turnovers. A year ago USC finished second in the country with a plus 21-turnover margin. In addition, over their last 65 games the Trojans are plus 99 in the turnover department. This pattern seems to be continuing in 2006 as USC forced five turnovers and committed none in their opening win at Arkansas. Therefore, we need to ensure our guys take care of the football and make good decisions when we have the ball.

Coach Callahan addressed this issue in his Tuesday press conference:
“Every game is a challenge to hold onto the ball. Hold onto it, secure it, and not turn it over. But especially when you get on the road, you get into a hostile environment, where things may be a little different for you, you really need to focus in and zero in on ball security and proper decision-making. And really when you get into tight quarters, that’s when the ball comes loose. If you’ve watched this team play, they do an outstanding job around the pile. They strip, they pull, they rip and the ball comes out. And when you’re primarily a zone type defense, you have an opportunity to break on the ball and knock the ball out and that’s what they do well. That’s been their history, that’s been their success and that’s how they get that momentum going in that venue.”
This is especially important given our recent struggles with turnovers. In 2004 while going 5-6, we finished with a turnover margin of –9. In addition, while we improved on those numbers in 2005 our turnover margin was still –2 for the year, which ranked us 69th in the country. In our four losses a year ago we had a turnover margin of –2. In the season ending wins versus Colorado and Michigan that improved to +2. This should provide evidence of the importance of winning the turnover battle. On the bright side, in 2006 we have 6 takeaways and just 3 giveaways for a turnover margin of +3 and Taylor’s lone interception came off a tipped ball.

Hopefully this piece has illuminated the crucial need to win the turnover battle on Saturday night in L.A. Ball protection will be a key emphasis for our running backs in preparation for this game. In the passing attack Zac Taylor’s blindside must be shielded, so expect the Huskers to utilize max-protect blocking schemes. Lastly, when facing blitzes, Taylor must hit the hot receiver or throw the ball away, rather than risk an untimely fumble or interception. But if Nebraska can finish the game with a positive turnover margin we just might escape with the biggest win of the Callahan era.