Marginally Bad: How WVU's Poor Turnover Margin Is Costing Us Games

As recently as last week, I implored our offense not to turn the ball over on our side of the field in an effort to give our defense a chance to win games for us.  And much like my Russian mail-order bride, they didn't listen to me.  That fact was clearly on display in our ridiculous seven fumbles, four of which were recovered by UConn.  But hey, I'm used to it.  And yet, I press on.  I told Charley, WVUIE, and 5YS on Monday that I planned to write about WVU's turnover issues this week.  Unfortunately, ESPN.com's Brian Bennett beat me to it

The gist of Bennett's article is that the turnover woes of the Mountaineers (7th in the Big East at -5) and Cincinnati (last at -10) are struggling in large part this year due to being on the wrong end of the turnover battle.  And I absolutely agree.  As much as we have struggled in all aspects of our offense, turnovers have been the biggest reason for our struggles. 

And hey, you know me.  I'm a stat nerd.  So before we go drawing any conclustions, I went back and looked at WVU's overall record, turnover margin, national ranking in turnover margin, and the turnover margin in the games we lost over a 5 year period, plus this year so far.  Hopefully we can shed some light on exactly how much difference turnovers can make.

Let's jump to it:

2005: (11-1) Ranked 7th at +14

Virginia Tech: 34-17 (-2)

2006: (11-2) Ranked 25th at +7

Louisville: 44-34 (-2)

USF: 24-19 (-2)

2007: (11-2) Ranked 9th at +13

USF: 21-13 (-2)

Pitt: 13-9 (-1)

2008: (9-4) Ranked 17th at +12

ECU 24-3 (-2)

Colorado: 17-14 (OT) (+1)

Cincinnati: 26-23 (OT) (-2)

Pitt: 19-15 (+1)

2009: (9-4) Ranked Below 50th at -2

Auburn: 41-30 (-5)

USF: 30-19 (-1)

Cincinnati: 24-21 (+2)

Florida State: 33-21 (-1)

2010: (5-3) Ranked 100th at -5

LSU: 20-14 (E)

Syracuse: 19-14 (-2)

UConn: 19-16 (OT) (-4)

The Verdict:

Honestly, turnover differential hasn't made as much a difference as I thought.  Sure, losing the turnover battle was a key factor in losses in 2005-2007.  But we had a solid ranking in 2008 on our way to a 9-4 record before dropping off in the ranking in 2009 and finishing with the same 9-4 record.  On the other hand, that -5 at Auburn may skew the results just a bit. 

Obviously, though, turnovers don't help.  Year after year, turnover margin is among the best predictors of success over the course of an entire season.  And whether it means blowing other teams out, overcoming costly mistakes, or simply forcing the other team to beat you, winning the turnover battle is important.  In fact, I would argue that breaking even on the turnover battle would have resulted in at least one more win in each of the last three years.  Not a huge improvement, but it would have elevated us to the elusive 10-win plateau, and would have prevented ugly losses to both Syracuse and UConn this year, leaving WVU at 7-1 and probably ranked around 15th.  For all the offensive ineptitude, simply not turning it over would have made a huge difference. 

So what's the solution?  Using Cincinnati as an example, Brian Bennett did an excellent job of explaining how a poor turnover margin is not necessarily the result of anything in particular.  Most of the same players ranked highly last year under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones' CMU team had a nice showing last year as well.  But to me, this is ultimately something that falls on the coaches.  And while some players (Adrian Peterson and Brett Favre come to mind) just have a propensity to cough it up despite being an otherwise outstanding player, it's the coaching staff's job to make sure that players are equipped with the proper fundamentals, focus, and inspiration to take care of the football.  The buck has to stop somewhere, and when isolated incidents become a pattern, it stops with the coaches, not the players.

But hey, we have to try something.  So, let's try this again:  Dear WVU Offense, PLEASE do not turn the ball over anymore and give our opponents a short field.  Avoid turning the ball over, score your 14 points in the first quarter, and let the defense do its job.  It's our only hope!

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