Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: How to Win Games and Influence Turnovers

March 28, 2018
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Footballs bounce funny. It's sort of a defining characteristic, which is fun for those of us watching at home but must be maddening for the people who coach this game professionally. I presume most coaches want to keep coaching football. To do that, they have to win. One of the surest ways to win is to win the turnover battle. (It is here where we note that Nebraska is 41-2 against FBS opponents since 2007 in games with a positive turnover margin.) But winning the turnover battle is subject to some degree to the random rolls and beneficent bounces of a ball that isn't meant behave predictably when left to its own devices.

At least that's the statistical view of turnovers. Over a long enough span, they're random. Every coach ever has tried to minimize giveaways and maximize takeaways, but that's much, much, much easier said than done. Ultimately coaches can't control how the ball bounces. I was thinking about all of this thanks to this tweet.

So let's talk about takeaways, the proactive half of the turnover margin equation. The average FBS defense in 2017 recovered 49.6 percent of its opponents' fumbles. That number holds pretty steady year to year. (Over the last five seasons, it has ranged from about 47 to 51 percent.) The same is true for passes the defense gets its hands on. Last year, 20.1 percent of passes defended were interceptions, and the five-year range on that is from 20 to 22 percent. That's normal turnover behavior.

When a team really exceeds those rates, it has the chance to have a pretty special season and vice versa. In 2017, UCF recovered 70.6 percent of its opponent fumbles and intercepted 28.6 percent of all the passes it got a hand on. That resulted in 9.5 more takeaways than you would expect with normal rates.

Nebraska's passive brand of 2017 defense was on the other end. The Huskers were fine when it came to interceptions (24.3 percent, 28th nationally) but second-worst nationally when it came to fumbles (17.6 percent recovered).

Those numbers are bouncing all over the place year to year, but they're also having an impact on how seasons go. Purdue's surprising 2017 season was likely helped by its 78.6 fumble-recovery percentage. Michigan's grumbly 2017 likely wasn't helped by a young defense with a below-average fumble recovery (35 percent) or interception (15.9 percent) rates.

There could be many variables impacting those numbers. How many tackles in space does a defense have to make? Is it a young defense or experienced defense? How much risk is the defensive coordinator comfortable with building into his system? All those things can fluctuate.

So maybe a more illustrative way to view controlling turnovers is to look at how many times a team is putting itself in a position to get takeaways. I'm going to call those Takeaway Opportunities (or TakeOpps), and it's just the combination of forced fumbles (those times the defense is credited with getting the ball out) and passes defended (which doesn't remove the times a bad QB might just throw the ball at a straight defender, but here's no way to separate those events on a large scale). 

The theory here is pretty simple: Any team over the long haul will get half its fumbles and intercept about 20 percent of its passes defended over the long run, so the way to boost takeaway numbers is to try to create those opportunities.

Over the last five years the average across FBS football is 5.27 TakeOpps per game. UCF created 6.5 per game in 2017 and, combined with above-average recovery rates, ranked second nationally with 32 takeaways. To use the other most relevant example for most people reading this, Nebraska created 3.5 TakeOpps per game (second-to-last nationally) and ended up with 12 takeaways (115th).

Let's go back another year. In 2016, UCF under now-Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander was even better at creating opportunities to get the ball – 7.69 per game. That was second nationally to resurgent Colorado that season. The Knights ranked 18th nationally in total takeaways, but here's where it gets interesting: UCF had slightly below average fumble-recovery (45.8) and interception (17.9) rates. The Knights were about three takeaways below expectation on the year, but because its takeaway opportunities were high it still faired better than most teams.

And that seems like a part of the takeaway/turnover equation a team can control through scheme, aggressiveness and, yes, culture. Chinander, like most coaches, has mentioned the importance of takeaways in his defense, but there are a few things that make it more than just the "thing you say" in this case.

First, it's much easier to be a risk-taking defense hellbent on forcing turnovers when that defense is paired with an offense that was (at UCF and should eventually be at Nebraska) pretty explosive. The cornerback making a play on the ball and missing, resulting in a long touchdown hurts a lot less when the defensive coordinator can feel confident that his team's offense is just as likely (if not more) to get the same sort of point-producing play on the next drive.

Second, some coaches are just better at translating the culture they want into actual results on the field. While every coach can preach the value of turnovers and try to coach how to get them, some just do it better. Nebraska's new staff certainly got the culture to take in two years at UCF.

This all just scratches the surface of this topic, so feel free to jump in with any questions or comments below. I'll be sharing some additional TakeOps numbers in the comments below.

The Grab Bag

  • ICYMI: Nebraska baseball continued its struggles at the plate in a 3-1 loss to Creighton. Here are the photos to prove it.
  • Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight was expected to transfer, but maybe that's not happening now.
  • Ian Boyd ranked the top teams from a non-power conference that would've been the scariest in a CFP game. (Y'know, if the playoff existed or if these teams were allowed in.)
  • Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com uses Tennessee's coaching search (and the records it has provided) as a way into looking at the bizarre process as a whole. Good read.

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