DURHAM After Duke’s 52-13 win over Elon, head coach David Cutcliffe was asked one of those questions that’s actually a statement.
The good news is that you didn’t turn the ball over, the questioner said. The bad news is that you didn’t force any turnovers.
“That was on my mind the whole game, the first half and second half,” Cutcliffe said. “How can we force turnovers, what are we going to do to get this done.”
“Winning the turnover battle” is a cliche key to victory repeated by coaches and pundits. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that consistently giving the ball away is not generally a recipe for success. But, when looking at the season as a whole and what’s most important – winning games – how much impact do turnovers have?
SB Nation’s Football Study Hall studied the relationship between turnover margin and winning percentage in college football from 2009-2012, running a linear regression model. The website found, in layman’s terms, that turnovers “explained” just 37 percent of a team’s win total – that obviously leaves a large percentage of what goes into winning unaccounted for.
College football analyst Phil Steele has long had a theory that the relationship between turnovers and wins involves more luck than skill. Teams that are especially fortunate or unfortunate in the turnover department rarely see a repeat of that fortune in the next year. Since 1991, teams that were plus 10 or better in turnover margin have only been able to improve on their win-loss record in the next season 24 percent of the time. The theory works in reverse, too – if a team was minus 10 or better in turnover margin, their record is only worse the next year 20 percent of the time.
The shaky relationship between success in the turnover department and winning extends to the ACC. In 2012, when Florida State won the league and the Orange Bowl, the Seminoles’ turnover margin per game was minus 0.6. The league leaders? Wake Forest (which went 5-7) and Miami (7-5) at plus 0.6. Last year, FSU did lead the league with a plus 1.4 turnover margin per game – but Virginia Tech, which finished 8-5 and third in the Coastal Division, was second at plus 0.6. N.C. State, which went winless in league play, was plus 0.2.
Duke finished nearly even in turnover margin last year, taking the ball away 26 times while giving it away 25 times (with rounding, a 0.0 turnover margin per game).
Duke’s defensive goal is, first and foremost, to limit explosive plays by the opposition – plays that gain large chunks of yards at once (typically runs that go for 12 or more yards and passes that go for 20 or more yards). The Blue Devils gave up three explosive runs – one came on the last series of the game – and just one explosive pass, which also came in the fourth quarter.
“When you’re in a game like that, in my opinion, it’s a first game, you feel like you have a team that should be better, you don’t want to give up anything cheap,” Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “And it will work out if you play good, sound, fundamental football.”
To create a turnover, a defender has to take a bigger risk – linemen have to try to strip the ball instead of wrapping a ballcarrier up, and defensive backs have to go more aggressively for the ball in the air, potentially leaving them out of position to make a tackle on a catch. Veterans are better suited to calculate when taking that risk is appropriate, Knowles said. Often, younger players are better off just focusing on fundamentals.
“Every play, you have that mindset of trying to make a play,” sophomore cornerback Bryon Fields said. “But at the same time you have to be smart, and sometimes they’re going to catch balls. Sometimes, you just have to worry about getting the guy to the ground.”
Elon’s quarterback, Mike Quinn, also didn’t hold the ball long – Knowles said he was getting rid of the ball in an average of 2.2 seconds. Some of his throws were timed under 1.7 seconds.
“If you send all 11 guys and don’t cover anybody, you won’t get there in 1.7 seconds,” Knowles said.
Knowles does put together film of tipped balls and overthrows to show the defense in meetings. He’ll say, “That looks like a tip,” or “That’s an overthrow.” And the defense will respond, “Gotta have those.”
When asked about turnovers after the game, Cutcliffe also said, “It can be a way to beat people when you’re outmatched.” That sums it up perfectly.
Being lucky always helps.
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