Bounce Of the Ball, Or Something More?
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – Every football coach emphasizes the importance of turnovers, both in creating them defensively and avoiding them offensively. Every school has practice periods devoted to ball security, where offensive players run through gauntlets who hack and pound on the ball. Defensive players, as in the clips below, work on different methods of knocking the ball loose. But once the ball is out, it can be something of a crapshoot as to which team actually recovers it.
Take for example, West Virginia last year. The Mountaineers forced 20 fumbles and recovered 11 — right about the 50-50 rate that the law of averages might suggest. On offense, though, that didn’t hold true. Although WVU had the ball pop free 13 times, it lost ten of them — a 77% success rate for the opponent. What made the difference?
Some of it is just the way the ball bounces, or the difficulty in corralling the erratically bouncing spheroid. Some has to do with where the fumbles occur, as the offense will tend to have more players around a bobble in the line or the backfield than the defense does. The sidelines can also help, as fumbles near the boundary have the chance of getting out of play before the defense can gobble them up.
Whatever the reasons, taking advantage of those loose balls can have a huge effect. Army and Georgia Tech, both heavy run teams, were first and third nationally last year in recovering their own fumbles, at 1.4 and 1.2 per contest respectively. (WVU ranked 124th out of 128 FBS schools with 0.2 per contest.) Luck, or a result of something else?
The offense, of course, operates at a disadvantage in recovering its own fumbles, as many of the players are involved in blocking on run plays. But West Virginia’s ratio of recoveries to losses was way out on a statistical edge. Might that ratio improve this year based on nothing else but regression to the mean, which suggests that outlying stat numbers tend to return toward the middle of the pack?
Also, it’s important to note that WVU was good in protecting the ball in 2016. The 13 fumbles ranked the Mountaineers 36th nationally. But for every fumble that doesn’t happen, the chance of a defensive recovery is lessened. Get that down to seven or eight, and West Virginia would be among the nation’s leaders.
That’s where WVU’s defensive numbers lay a year ago. The 20 forced fumbles put WVU 46th nationally, and the 11 recoveries had it even higher, at number 19. If it could hold on to a 50% defensive recovery rate, and get back just a few more of its own on offense, it would improve its turnover margin (which ranked a respectable 38th nationally a year ago) into the Top 20, or maybe even higher. And as every coach knows, that’s a path to more wins.