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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Where are the turnovers?

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OU continues to end up on the bad end of turnover luck.

Texas Tech v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

When Alex Grinch took over as defensive coordinator of the Oklahoma Sooners in 2019, “turnover” became the word of the day on defense every day.

The emphasis on takeaways didn’t carry over into games. In 14 games last season, OU generated a total of 11 turnovers. That matched the squad’s pathetic haul in 2018. The sum ranked 121st nationally both years.

Overall, OU placed 109th in per-game turnover margin at -0.57 in ‘19. In other words, the Sooners were likely to have spotted their opponents one turnover in every game they played last year. They lost the turnover battle to the other team in nine of 14 games – the margin was negative two in six of those contests.

If you were blindly given just those numbers for a team, you might assume it spent the holiday season at home. It seems almost miraculous that OU won 12 games and was playing in the College Football Playoff instead. But let’s think about what this means for the team going forward.

Better to be lucky than good?

I ran some numbers for last season using some of Bill Connelly’s underlying assumptions about turnovers:

  • Teams recover 50% of fumbles, whether their own or those of their opponents;
  • Teams intercept 22% of “passes defensed” (PDs), a metric that combines interceptions and passes broken up (PBUs).

(See Connelly’s entry for “Adj. TO Margin“ for more information on this.)

In 14 games, the Sooners picked off seven passes out of 55 PDs. That works out to a conversion rate of 13%, well below the 22% average. Meanwhile OU saw nine of its own passes intercepted out of 44 PDs, which works out to 20%.

Fumbles are even more eye-catching. OU’s opponents fumbled 16 times last season, and the Sooners recovered only four. Meanwhile, OU fumbled 19 times and lost 10 (i.e. recovered nine). In other words, out of a total of 35 fumbles in OU’s 14 games, the team recovered 13, or 37%.

What would the numbers look like if OU enjoyed standard turnover conversion rates in ‘19? The defense would have intercepted 12 passes and recovered eight fumbles, which works out to gaining an additional nine turnovers over the Sooners’ total in ‘19. On offense, OU would have thrown about 9.5 INTs and lost 9.5 fumbles – consistent with the actual numbers from the season.

In that world, the Sooners have a turnover margin for the season of plus one, rather than negative eight. 2019 qualifies as seriously bad luck in the statistical sense.

Too close for comfort

“Generating more turnovers” doesn’t equate to “better defensive performance,” to be sure. However, takeaways can have a second-order effect on how well defenses play.

Consider the OU-Iowa State game last year, for example. The Sooners sweated out a 42-41 victory that saw ISU come roaring back from a 35-14 deficit. The Cyclones’ comeback effort was aided in part by a two-to-zero advantage in turnover margin. ISU recovered the only two fumbles recorded in the game. More importantly, the Sooners had seven PBUs and zero INTs, while ISU picked off one Jalen Hurts pass and broke up three more.

If OU turned just one of those PBUs into an INT, imagine how differently that game might have played out. Would the Cyclones have been forced to change their approach to game management? Do ISU’s play calls get more predictable? Do the ‘Clones have to take more risks?

Of course, even though it was closer than necessary, OU still came out ahead. That points to the impact – or lack thereof – that the Sooners’ turnover deficiency had on their overall record. History says that is tempting fate:

The good news is that statistics suggest the trend in turnovers should eventually right itself for OU. If it doesn’t, expect more wild rides to come.