Hot Reads: When It Comes to Turnovers
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: When It Comes to Turnovers, Being a Front-Runner Is Good

July 27, 2018

Sometimes I like to think of football like it's tennis. Alternating possession means that, no matter whether a team is led by its offense or is defense-first, the idea of "holding serve" has some merit.

Other times I think of it as baseball. Each drive is an inning. One of the great things about baseball is that it is our most cause-and-effect game. Most baseball fans know that a leadoff walk increases the chances for a run in that inning, that runners on second and third with no outs should produce multiple runs most of the time. Football's the same for a drive including an explosive play or one that includes a first down inside the opponent's 40. These are plays that increase a team's odds of scoring.

That's a big reason why I like drive-based statistics, and Twitter user @CoryHonold pointed me to just such an analysis of UCF's 2017 defense by Jeff Sharon of Black & Gold Banneret. It's a very good read, but to avoid getting too deep in the weeds here's what you're probably most interested in from a Nebraska perspective.

UCF's 2016 defense was better than the 2017 defense at getting stops, better at preventing scores, better at preventing touchdowns and, thus, had a lower overall points per possession allowed. The one thing last year's defense did better than the previous version was force turnovers. 

And that brings ups the eternal questions: How does a team set out to "get turnovers?" All coaches want them and have drills meant to increase them, some structure a more aggressive style specifically to do that, but it's still far from an exact science. Back in March I toyed with a fairly basic way to measure how many opportunities for takeaways teams were generating. That is something a coach should be able to exercise some degree of control over. Certainly more control than how a forced fumble bounces once it's forced. It's a sample-size play. The best way to force more turnovers isn't to come up with the best strip drill or pregame speech emphasizing the value of the football ever invented. (John Heisman already did the latter.) It's to increase the number of plays that lead to turnovers (and it probably means sacrificing something, e.g. more big plays allowed, somewhere else).

UCF in 2016 and 2017 was a good example of this. The Knights had more takeaway opportunities per game in 2016, but slightly below average fumble recovery and interception rates (i.e. it was a little unlucky) and finished middle-of-the-pack in total turnover margin. The 2017 defense forced fewer takeaway opportunities per game, but had better recovery and interception rates and ended up with the second-best turnover margin in the country.

But there might be something else influencing turnovers I hadn't considered before. It's from this excellent story from David M. Hale for ESPN on "coaches and their everlasting quest to coach turnovers". That story backs up the notion that there's a good degree of randomness to turnovers.

Here's the part that really caught my attention (emphasis mine):


The math suggests things like pressure and sack rates have surprisingly little correlation to takeaways, while less intuitive metrics like yards per rush are a better predictor. Even the notion that turnovers dictate the outcome of a game offers something of a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Every FBS team has a positive turnover margin when already ahead on the scoreboard over the past decade, and only about a third of turnovers are committed by the team that's ahead, with only about 14 percent from teams ahead by a touchdown or more. So are turnovers the key to winning or simply a byproduct of it?


Based on that number –– two-thirds of turnovers are committed by teams that trail –– that seems to be another big factor influencing turnovers.

And we also know that UCF was insanely good in that regard in 2017, too. The Knights ran 68 percent of their offensive plays while leading. That was third nationally behind Penn State and Alabama. But the Knights' defense took the field with a lead or tied for 95.6 percent of its plays. In 2016 that same number was 69.3 percent, still good and perhaps part of the reason UCF still forced a bunch of takeaway opportunities that season.

Nebraska's 2017 defense only played with a lead or tied on 45 percent of plays and, as you'd expect, the takeaway opportunities were low as were the actual takeaways. The offense was in an even tougher spot, leading for just 22.1 percent of its snaps (107th nationally).

I already wrote about two ways Nebraska could outperform its modest season projections, but after seeing that number in the ESPN story here's another area to add to your list: How often are the Huskers in the lead in 2018?

They weren't very often in 2017.

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