“Well it’s important that we win the turnover battle...”
This exact phrase will be repeated by pretty much every college football coach over the course of this next season. And it’s not because it’s a hallow statement. They have the numbers and results indicating the importance of forcing more turnovers than your opponent. If you look at BYU and their turnover rate the last few seasons, you’ll see that it paints a very clear picture.
In 2016, BYU forced 31 turnovers (21 interceptions and 10 fumbles) and gave up 19 (12 interceptions and 7 fumbles) for a net +12 turnover margin. They finished the year 9-4.
In 2017, BYU forced 17 turnovers (9 interceptions and 8 fumbles) and gave up 27 (19 interceptions and 8 fumbles) for a net -10 turnover margin. They finished 4-9.
In 2018, BYU forced 18 turnovers (9 interceptions and 9 fumbles) and gave up 17 (7 interceptions and 10 fumbles) for a net 1 turnover margin. They finished 7-6.
There is much more nuance to the discussion as to why each of these teams ended their season the way they did, but the turnover margin accurately tells the story. When BYU was able to force more turnovers, they won more games. It’s almost comical that BYU’s second year under Kalani Sitake had an exact flip in record and near flip in turnover margin. Then of course we have 2018 where things leveled out with a winning record (barely) and a positive turnover margin (barely).
So what needs to change in 2019? The BYU offense already made one of the major corrections from 2017 to 2018 in limiting the number of turnovers, down from 27 in 2017 to 17 in 2018. It was clear that under Jeff Grimes, ball control and discipline were a priority. In fact, the 17 giveaways was the lowest mark over the last ten seasons. If Zach Wilson and the rest of the offense can keep the turnovers under 18 that would be a success.
Now that the offense has done their part to level out the turnover margin, it’s on the defense to force a few more takeaways. They made an improvement from 2017 to 2018 with one more turnover but that’s not going to make a big impact. Expecting a big number like 31 like we saw in 2016 isn’t realistic as that season was a bit of an outlier, but there is no reason BYU can’t aim to force 24+ turnovers.
How can they be more opportunistic in this statistical category? A lot of it has to do with mindset. Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch was able to flip Washington State’s defense from forgotten to formidable in the course of 3 seasons, and will look to do the same at Oklahoma where just took over as their DC. His success come from a mindset towards forcing turnovers. Grinch operates under the idea that “the sole purpose of the defense to be on the football field is get the ball back to the offense.” He doesn’t start with winning the line of scrimmage or stuffing the run. It’s simply about get the ball back to the offense. The quickest way to do that is to cause havoc and turnovers.
It’s obvious that certain BYU defenders had that exact mindset, specifically Kai Nacua and Kyle Van Noy. Those guys had a nose for the ball and would always arrive ready for take the ball away. Some of that is natural instinct and having that intention (and sometimes taking a bit of a risk) can put a player in the right position for a takeaway.
To help instill this mentality some programs have incentivized their players with a turnover chain, to help keep the turnovers top of mind. I know that BYU won’t drop any coin on some bling, but maybe they start the TURNOVER TAIL where each player that forces a turnover gets to eat a Cougartail right there on the sideline.
OK that might not be the best idea but the fact remains, it would be in BYU’s best interests to adopt a turnover mentality on defense.