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Turnover margin is the key for Iowa

[ 1 ] November 4, 2010 |

Turnover margin rates among college football’s most popular talking points. Coaches stress it, players tout it and national pundits emphasize it.

One question, however, leaves everybody stumped: Is collecting more fumbles and interceptions than your opponent a matter of good fortune, or great game planning?

“I definitely think there is some luck involved,” said Anthony Herron, an analyst for the Big Ten Network, “but when it’s the same guy, or the same team that comes up with those plays, has those magical moments over and over …”

Iowa's Tyler Sash has two of Iowa's 13 interceptions.

Saturday’s Iowa-Indiana matchup offers a contrast in turnover margin.

The Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-1 in the Big Ten) lead the conference and rank No. 2 nationally with a 1.5 turnover advantage per game (plus-12 overall for the season).

The Hoosiers (4-4, 0-4) are ninth in the conference and tied for 74th out of 120 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision programs, with a negative-0.25 turnover margin (minus-2 overall).

“Sometimes, the ball has just got to bounce your way,” Indiana linebacker Jeff Thomas said. “You’re not always going to make that interception or fumble, but you’ve got to try and create one.”

The significance of giveaways and takeaways is rarely debated, but unlike other statistical trends, turnover margin rarely carries over from one season to the next.

No major college program has been ranked among the top five nationally in turnover margin each of the past three seasons — and only Ohio State appears twice — but Georgia Tech and Nevada have landed among the NCAA rushing leaders each season since 2008. Hawaii has earned a place among the top five passing offenses 10 times since 2000.

If there is a science to jumping pass routes and stripping the ball, why aren’t more teams consistently good at it?

“Turnovers are dependent somewhat on a mistake an opponent might make,” said Herron, who played defensive line for Iowa from 1997-2000. “So the numbers can fluctuate, but a defensive-minded coach can still put you in position to take advantage of some of the mistakes.”

Outsiders tend to overlook the offensive side of turnover margin.

When Brad Banks quarterbacked the Hawkeyes in 2002, he threw just five interceptions in 294 attempts.

Iowa’s defense picked off 20 passes, giving the team a plus-15 edge in turnovers — highest in Kirk Ferentz’s 12 seasons as coach. The Hawkeyes and their opponents both lost 11 fumbles.

“Everybody has some responsibility,” Ferentz said.

Senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi is putting together the best season of his college career, completing 68.5 percent of his passes for 1,922 yards and 19 touchdowns.

He’s thrown two interceptions in 197 attempts, while Hawkeye running backs have lost just three fumbles in 301 carries.

“We just try to have zero at the end of the day,” Stanzi said. “The defense can go from there.”

Stanzi owns a 24-6 record as a starter, but his streaky play last fall led to 15 interceptions, including four that were returned for touchdowns.

Iowa finished 11-2, but was a modest plus-2 in turnover margin.

“It seems like a night-and-day difference,” defensive back Tyler Sash said. “I’d hate to play against Stanzi right now, because he’s making plays all over the field.”

The Hawkeyes have historically fed off turnovers during successful seasons.

In the past 20 years, Iowa has won at least 10 games five times. The combined turnover margin for those seasons was plus-36, or an average of 7.2.

Since 1990, the Hawkeyes have had seven seasons of six wins or fewer. The combined turnover margin for those years is minus-1.

“You’re going to play people all year who watch tape, jump routes, hit you and try and strip the ball,” Hawkeye offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde said. “I think historically, if you look at one stat that has shown to be a determining factor in a team’s final record, turnovers is probably that one stat.”

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Andrew Logue: Andrew has been with the Des Moines Register for 15 years, covering everything from preps to Hawkeye and Cyclone sports, as well as the Drake Relays. View author profile.

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