USC Football: Turnovers, Fumbles an Emphasis in 2015


Turnovers. It goes without saying that losing or gaining possession via an interception or fumble is a big swing in a football game. USC had a +11 turnover differential last season, which was the best mark in the post­-Pete Carroll era.

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USC was tied for second in the country for fewest giveaways last season. Though on the defensive side of the ball, the Trojans weren’t nearly as successful.

“Creating turnovers has been a huge emphasis of ours coming into this season,” USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Our offense was really good a year ago, we only turned the ball over 12 times offensively. But we only created 23 turnovers. We want to get into the thirties. If you look at the elite teams in college football, they’re getting turnovers defensively.”

The Trojans’ 23 takeaways were good enough to tie them for the No. 41 spot in that category last season. Twenty-three is a solid number, but certainly not elite. The average amount of turnovers generated for Pac­-12 Championship game participants is roughly 27, so at least the elite teams in the Pac­-12 are racking up their takeaways.

When thinking about those elite teams in the conference, Oregon immediately pops into the mind of any college football fan. And the Ducks are exceptional at creating turnovers.

Mar 3, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox at spring practice at Cromwell Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past four seasons, Oregon has averaged 33 takeaways. USC? Only 24. That discrepancy in turnovers generated is a big reason why the Ducks are 42-­6 during the last four regular seasons, while USC is 34-­15.

USC’s defense has finished inside the top-­30 nationally for interceptions each of the past three seasons, so turnovers through the air isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the fumbles. But is a lack of fumbles forced the problem, or is it an unlucky percentage of fumbles recovered?

Looking at all of the Pac-­12 teams over the past four seasons, since 2011 when Colorado and Utah first joined the conference, USC has forced 87 fumbles. That puts the Trojans in the middle of the pack in the Pac-­12, causing the sixth­-most loose footballs in the conference over that time period.

The real issue is that USC has been rather unlucky with the number of fumbles the defense has recovered. Over that four-­year span, USC has recovered 41.4 percent of fumbles forced by the defense.

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Only Arizona at 38.9 percent has had a worse rate in the Pac­-12. And Oregon? A whopping 60 percent of fumbles that defense has forced has ended up as a turnover.

But the best way to recover more fumbles is to force more of them.

“We’re getting our hands on a lot of balls this fall camp,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “We’re getting a lot more strip attempts. We are focusing on getting the ball out. We’re stripping every time a running back comes. We’re picking up every ball that lands on the ground. It’s just about getting our hands on balls.”

USC’s defense going for more strips has also greatly benefitted the offense. In 2014, the Trojans’ offense fumbled the ball 14 times and losing seven, which tied them for the 24th­ fewest fumbles in the country.

The year before, they were ranked 79th. Before that? 90th. So while USC has improved greatly in that area, there’s still more work to be done.

“We’re getting our hands on a lot of balls this fall camp.”-Safety Chris Hawkins

“[The defense attempting more strips] has definitely helped our guys,” USC running backs coach Johnny Nansen said. “I can simulate a strip attempt drill. But at the end of the day, nothing replaces a live situation like we have in practice. The first rule is that we take care of the football, and our guys take pride in that.”

Sarkisian views the greater amount of strip attempts also as a positive for both the offense and the defense.

“We weren’t very good [at holding onto the ball] early on,” Sark said. “But that’s why we strip the ball with our defense to get them better, but also obviously to get better with our offense. It also helps with the fundamentals of which hand you’re carrying the ball with when you’re on the sideline.”

As long as USC’s turnover differential increases this season, the possibility of the Trojans reaching the Pac­-12 Championship game will only increase as well.

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