Utes working to force more turnovers and commit fewer
They practice holding onto the ball, stripping the ball, recovering the ball and tipping the ball. Any imaginable scenario involving a turnover has been rehearsed by the Utah Utes.
Of all the plays, schemes and strategies used in a football game, it's the one that is never planned the turnover that coach Kyle Whittingham emphasizes so much.
Just look at what has happened the past few weeks.
The Utes coaxed Brigham Young into seven turnovers and blew out the Cougars at home, 54-10. Then, the Utes committed five turnovers in each of their next two games, and lost both big.
Coincidence? Not at all, the players and coaches say.
"It's the most important stat of the game, other than the final score," Whittingham said.
The reason is simple, offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom said. A change of possession often means a swing of momentum that can turn the outcome of a game.
"There is nothing more energizing than sitting on the sideline with the rest of the offense and there is a turnover and you are on the other guys' 40-yard line," he said. "You are either getting good field position or stopping them from scoring with a turnover, so it's a huge momentum swing. That is the big reason these last games have been so hard, we've put our defense in that situation. Putting them in bad situations so much is almost too much to ask of our defense."
The Utes have been a team that prides itself on creating turnovers, not suffering them as they have in the last two weeks.
Linebacker Brian Blechen gained instant fame last year as a freshman when he intercepted a pass in overtime to help Utah beat Pitt.
He made a similar opening impression this year with two picks against Montana State.
"It's awesome to get a turnover like that because it's an unexpected change and the whole momentum changes," Blechen said. "We talked about getting turnovers when I played in high school, but here it's a big focus."
Turnovers were a huge part of Utah's undefeated run in 2008, too, with the Utes intercepting opponents 19 times and recovering 12 fumbles. In contrast, the Utes threw only nine interceptions and lost nine fumbles.
Finally, who can forget Robert Johnson making three interceptions on three consecutive CSU possessions in 2009 to help the Utes escape with a 24-17 win?
"It's a big deal for us every week," defensive lineman Dave Kruger said. "We focus on trying to get our goal every week, usually it's two or three a game."
Utah's defense practices batting down balls, recovering loose balls and trying to strip the ball.
The offense, meanwhile, practices hanging onto the ball while players are getting hit or are in a scrum.
While they practice it, though, there isn't much science involved, the Utes say.
"It's just a matter of ball security and effort and making sure you've got it wrapped up," Whittingham said.
The Utes emphasized ball security following their loss to Washington and are doing so again this week after losing to Arizona State, although Whittingham said he didn't want to put so much emphasis on it that the team thinks about it too much.
"We've done every drill known to man and practiced extensively," Whittingham said. "We pay close attention to it and that won't change and we're doing all we can do, but sometimes you tighten up if you talk too much about it and it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you are on pins and needles."
The Utes might not be on pins and needles, but they now know the pain of turnovers.
"We've got to do a better job of tucking the ball away," quarterback Jon Hays said. "We know we have to be smarter."
The Utes are tied with several teams for 60th nationally in turnover margin. Here is how the Utes stand through five games:
Category Number Rank
Fumbles gained 8 8
Interceptions gained 5 55
Fumbles lost 7 97
Interceptions lost 6 77
Utah turnover margin
Year Gained Lost Record
2011 13 13 2-3
2010 25 26 10-3
2009 25 20 10-3
2008 31 18 13-0
2007 33 22 9-4
2006 28 20 8-5
2005 23 24 7-5
2004 29 14 12-0
Utah at Pitt
P Saturday, 10 a.m.
TV • ESPNU (Comcast 400; DirecTV 208; Dish 141)