Blum: Turnover Tumult

By Brent Blum, ColumnistFollow Brent on Twitter @BrentBlum

Well that didn’t exactly go as planned. In the middle of the fourth quarter on Saturday night, it got to the point where you expected Rick Astley’s "Never Gonna Give You Up" be splashed on the Jumbo-Tron as some elaborate Texas Rick-Roll. The Longhorns did enough damage as it was. And the Cyclones didn’t exactly help the cause.

As my good friend JW said during the game, "I’ve seen Iowa State teams shoot themselves in the foot, but this is downright Plaxico Burress like." This made me laugh in an otherwise miserable evening.

It is pretty obvious to any and all observers that Iowa State’s self-inflicted issues are problematic. We’ve all seen the stat by now: Iowa State is 119th out of 120 teams in penalties per game. And tied for dead last in turnover margin at -2.0 per game. It is rather remarkable Iowa State is 3-1 by looking only at the numbers.

Analyzing numbers can be a misleading venture. As author Gregg Easterbrook once said, "Torture numbers and they will confess to anything."

I must admit that I am a number torturing fiend. If this kind of torture were frowned upon, the ACLU would be on me in no-time. Luckily, we’re safe for now and I can water-board numbers into oblivion.

That said, let’s take a closer look at this mysterious turnover problem that is confounding the Cyclones.

Turnovers are the most important aspect of any football game. It is cliché as cliché can be. But it is true. The clearest predictor of success in football is winning the turnover battle.

In 2010, 28 of the top 30 teams in turnover margin had winning records. And 27 of the bottom 30 had losing records.

In 2009, 26 of the top 30 had winning records. 26 of the bottom 30 had losing records.

Here are last year’s BCS representatives and their corresponding turnover margin rank. (Out of 120 FBS teams.)

Atlantic Coast: Virginia Tech (#1)
Big East: Connecticut (#11)
Big Ten: Wisconsin (#6)
Big 12: Oklahoma (tied #7)
Pac-10: Oregon (tied #7)
Southeastern: Auburn (#22)

Other Participants
Arkansas (#52)
Ohio State (#4)
Stanford (tied #7)
TCU (#20)

So if you are scoring at home,  seven of the top 11 in turnover margin played in BCS games. And nine of the 10 BCS qualifiers finished in the top 22 in turnover margin. The only team in the top 10 in turnover margin to finish with less than nine wins was the Iowa Hawkeyes.

It’s the same basic story on down the line. And Iowa State is no exception.

Paul Rhoads has coached 29 games for Iowa State. The Cyclones are 8-2 when they win the turnover battle. They are 3-9 when they lose the turnover battle, with two of those wins coming this year. (UNI and Iowa.)

Turnovers are like money. Everybody wants them and yet you don’t know how vital they are until you fritter them away.

At Iowa State, they become even more valuable because the Cyclones have a smaller margin of error than most conference mates. Turnovers smash the talent gap.

Right now a lot of you are saying, "C’mon Blum, my 87-year old grandma knows you shouldn’t give the other team the ball back. Tell me something I don’t know."

Touché. It is easy to spot the turnovers you commit on offense. Everybody remembers their own car crash.  It is creating opportunities for the opponent’s self-destruction that is the biggest riddle.

The Wally Burnham defensive philosophy centers around giving the opposition enough rope to hang themselves. During the first 21 games of the Rhoads/Burnham era, the Cyclones were excellent in doing just that.

After forcing four turnovers against Texas last year in Austin, Iowa State had created 51 turnovers in the first 21 games under Rhoads/Burnham. Almost 2.5 per game. During that time span the Cyclones were second in the nation in turnovers forced, trailing only Ohio State’s 56. Not too shabby. (The eight turnover monstrosity in Lincoln, Nebraska helped the cause immensely. I think Niles Paul just fumbled again).

But in the eight games since that 2010 win in Austin, the Cyclones have created a meager nine turnovers. The defense has played exceedingly well in those eight games, giving up 400 yards or less in each game – the last time a Cyclone defense put together a string of eight 400 yard or less games was in 1982 when John "The Landshark" Arnaud anchored the Iowa State D (better known to the young folks as Austen’s father). And yet, Iowa State is 4-4 in that streak largely because of the lack of turnovers forced.

Quick trivia question: When was the last time a member of Iowa State’s secondary had an interception?

……Bueller, Bueller. (The 20-year olds reading this don’t understand the reference and that makes me feel old. Might as well start heading to Perkins for the Farmer’s omelet and senior coffee special.)

Answer:Leonard Johnson’s fourth quarter interception in Austin, Texas last October 23. Yes it has been 32 quarters and five overtimes since the secondary’s last pick. Or roughly 226 pass attempts.

Stephen Ruempolhamer has Iowa State’s only interception this season. I like the Big Dutchmen, but he should not be standing alone in this category.

Forced turnovers not only give the defense a stop and flips momentum, but it leads to shorter fields for the offense.

Discounting overtimes, the Cyclones have started drives in their opponents territory just five times this season (three against Iowa, once against UCONN, and  once against UNI when the Panthers fumbled a lateral with 20 seconds left). In comparison, Texas had four drives start in Cyclone territory in the first half alone on Saturday.

The good news? These things generally even out over time. Jeremy Reeves has been close to three interceptions on his own in the past two games. Cue Skee-Lo: "I wish I was a little bit taller…." I feel for you Mr. Reeves.

Bounces go your way, passes get deflected in your direction, etc. They can also come in spurts. After going five years without a defensive touchdown, the Cyclones got three in a two-week span last year. (Klein’s pick six against K-State, Klein’s pick six against UNI and Reeves’ pick-six against UNI.)

The Cyclones are due for a few positive bounces of the prolate spheroid. It’s no time to give-up on the bowl chances yet. There’s a plethora of season to be played. Might as well flip the script in Waco.