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Oklahoma Sooners Football: What the numbers say about causing turnovers

If Alex Grinch wants to see his defense generate more turnovers, he may want to get back to basics.

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Army v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

The importance of “creating turnovers” is as much a staple of the defensive coordinator stump speech as a presidential candidate tossing out platitudes about the American spirit. For Alex Grinch, the Oklahoma Sooners’ new defensive coordinator, talking about turnovers is his version of kissing babies.

Ask coaches about effective tactics for causing turnovers, though, and they start to sound like they’re trying to explain how to bring peace to the Middle East. Frequently, the conversations about turnovers turn to soft factors like team culture and messaging. Take Jason Kersey’s excellent piece for The Athletic in which he rounded up players from recent teams that excelled in stealing the ball from opponents. While the article did point to some concrete steps coaches take in an effort to generate more turnovers, the larger point seemed to be that mentality and an emphasis on causing turnovers are of the utmost importance.

Likewise, an informative piece from 2018 by David Hale of hints at the idea that keeping turnovers top of mind can make a difference for a defense. Hence, gimmicks like Miami’s turnover chain might help remind players to stay vigilant about capitalizing on opportunities.

So much randomness goes into turnovers, however, that trying to identify worthwhile teaching techniques and strategies seems almost pointless. Can we glean some useful information instead from what the numbers have to say about when turnovers occur? Here are a few points to consider.

Teams leading by seven points or more turn the ball over less frequently than teams trailing by seven points or more.

According to Hale, teams in the former category turn it over once every 57 snaps. The latter group average one turnover for every 38 plays.

This stat embodies everything that is so confounding about turnovers in college football. You could interpret it as evidence that when teams are trailing, they tend to offer more opportunities for defenses to steal the ball. For example, quarterbacks may force more ill-advised throws, or ball carriers may get careless with the ball trying to fight for extra yards.

If true, that would suggest a “fast start” can benefit a team significantly. Additionally, it should inform a defense about how to approach the situation when holding a lead.

On the other hand, we can arrive at an equally likely conclusion: Superior teams generally spend more time with a lead during a game; therefore, the better team in a given matchup simply tends to create more turnovers. (Or they turn the ball over less frequently.)

Not very helpful.

Turnovers happen far more often on passing plays than running plays.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Intuitively, the fact that teams are more likely to turn the ball over throwing it makes sense. For starters, an offense can lose the ball two ways when throwing it, but you can’t throw an interception on a run play. Second, a ball traveling in the air from a quarterback to a target is more exposed to the defense than sticking it in a running back’s gut. Lastly, a handoff involves fewer moving parts than a dropback pass.

Again, we’re left to wonder if this stat simply reflects a byproduct of winning, as opposed to a cause of it. Weaker teams presumably have to throw the ball more to make up deficits – and many of them aren’t that skilled at it.

On a separate note, this stat makes the Oklahoma Sooners’ anemic turnover rate in 2018 even more frustrating. OU’s defense faced 488 pass attempts last year. That was the fifth-highest total of any team in the country. The Sooners tied for 112th overall with a grand total of six interceptions and finished tied for 121st nationally in total turnovers with 11.

Third-and-long is prime turnover time.

Turnovers happen once per 63 snaps on first down. The rate just goes up from there – once out of every 53 plays on second down and once per every 36 snaps on third down.

A key reason why turnovers are so frequent on third down is that one out of every 29 plays in third-and-long situations (i.e., seven yards or more to go) produces a turnover. In these situations, play-callers don’t have much wiggle room. Rushers can tee off on the QB, and coverage players can cherry pick passes without as much concern for run support. As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the turnover rate goes up.

To be sure, this raises the same possibility as the previous stats. It’s entirely possible that better teams force their opponents into third-and-long situations more often. Conversely, perhaps good teams’ offenses aren’t in third-and-long as often, which would skew the stats.

These three truths about takeaways point in at least one direction: Turnovers may not come so much from defenders sitting on receivers’ routes or trying to strip the ball from an opponent. In reality, just playing good defense overall could drive turnover creation.

For instance, keeping the other team off the scoreboard helps a squad build a lead. Similarly, if opponents fall behind or struggle to score, they have to throw the ball more. Stopping opponents consistently on first and second down puts them in more third-and-long scenarios.

The stats say all of that corresponds with more turnovers. Assuming takeaways really are primarily just a matter of good defense, it would suggest the biggest benefits to OU’s turnover creation this year may have very little to do with actually forcing turnovers.