Turnovers are Key in USC-BYU Game

The fastest way for BYU to lose to USC is to turn the ball over. According to official NCAA statistics, USC ranked No. 5 out of 117 teams in turnover margin last year. BYU was tied for No. 83.

Having a top turnover ratio does not guarantee points or wins, but a horrible turnover ratio does – especially against quality teams like USC. Judged only by the first game this year, USC had a +3 turnover figure (with zero fumbles or INTs), and BYU had a net +2 turnover figure (after deducting two INTs).

It is a small, hopeful sign, after only one game, that BYU may have turned the corner in moving from a "giveaway" mode to an aggressive "takeaway" mode.

USC will want to impose its will on BYU. It will succeed if it wins the turnover battle because the Trojan defense does not give up points easily – even if BYU can hold on to the ball and drive the field.

If USC does not succeed in taking the ball away, BYU may have a fighting chance. Even then, a number of other things must go right for BYU to upset USC.

Quite simply, BYU's best chance to beat the Trojans at the Coliseum is to fly under the USC radar. USC beat Auburn 24-17 last year in Los Angeles, in a close game against USC' Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Carson Palmer.

This close game, against the high-scoring Trojans of last season, gave Auburn Tiger fans hope it would be close this year at home. It wasn't. The final 23-0 score was not as close as the score might indicate. In the South where college football and allegiances can as strong as their religious beliefs, losing to the finesse West Coast team twice and, having them disassemble their offense before their eyes, will stick in their collective craw for a long time.

Even though BYU will have 10 days to prepare while USC has a much shorter rest from the road game at Auburn, any knowledgeable prognosticator must still give the decisive edge to the Trojans. Besides, it will be easier to rest for the Trojans after they dominated a strong team in such a hostile, humid environment. Even the plane ride home was shorter for them.

But don't count out the Cougars. A lot of "IFs" are necessary for an upset win in Los Angeles this Saturday. The starting point:

• BYU must hold on to the ball when they have it and limit the Trojans offensive production and effectiveness when they don't.

• They must also force turnovers from a team that does not typically turn it over much.

The USC quarterback and running backs earned more than a passing grade in Division 1 play in a very hostile environment.

• USC's inexperience against a passing team (similar to the Washington State team that beat them in overtime last year) or a team that plays a confusing 3-3-5 defense (like no team they played last year) may be the X-factor.

• They get no "carryover" points from the Auburn victory to game No. 2. IF BYU's aggressive defense can cause turnovers and IF BYU's offense can then capitalize on their best offensive opportunities, the Cougars can pull out a major upset. SC's stingy run defense will mean that some of those scoring opportunities will be by a FG. Last year, Washington State hit three field goals for the overtime win against the tough SC defense, and SC hit none.

• This year's team will be easy to overlook because of their dismal 5-7 season record last year. If the Cougars show up with their "A" game, the Trojans may be in for a surprise – especially from a motivated and top-to-bottom revamped defense. The only ones who will definitely not look past the Cougars will be USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow and quarterback coach Steve Sarkisian. Both are former BYU headliners as a coach and quarterback respectively. In the case of Chow especially, he had a hand in the planning of more than one of BYU's historic upsets.

• USC's running backs were all-world out of high school so talent is not the question. Experience is. Inexperienced skill players turn the ball over much more than inexperienced ones. BYU forced three fumbles against Georgia Tech, just as USC forced two fumbles and one interception against Auburn. If both trends continue into the BYU-USC game, expect to see the ball on the ground and USC will win. BYU's only hope is to force turnovers, and not make any. It doesn't guarantee anything, just increases the odds.

NCAA TURNOVER STATS FOR USC AND BYU IN 2002:

Across 13 games, USC netted 18 turnovers from fumbles or INTs. Across 12 games, BYU had a net loss of seven turnovers. That is a huge swing: USC had/gained/kept 25 more chances to score in its season, and Carson Palmer, Mike Williams and friends took advantage.

Bronco Mendenhall's defense showed in BYU's first game they are more opportunistic and will attack these talented, inexperienced skill players at quarterback and running to pry the ball loose. Similarly, when the Cougars have the ball, they need to be very aware that USC has been the very best over the past two seasons at taking it away. BYU does not need to give USC more opportunities to score.

Here's how that NCAA turnover stat works out. USC had one more game, so the ratio is more accurate than these raw numbers, but we're just listing raw numbers here.

USC lost their entire offensive starting backfield. BYU will return all defensive starters except linebacker Paul Walkenhorst and cornerback Brandon Heaney, both sidelined for the season by injury. They will, at least, have Jernaro Gilford, so there should not be a significant drop off from BYU. With the new faces in USC's secondary, it's hard to predict if their 11 defenders this year will be as efficient taking the ball away this year as the more experienced 11 defenders were last year.

This represents the efficiency of both defenses in taking the ball away last season, even with BYU employing a read-react defense, and ignoring the caliber of opponents played:

Fumbles Gained -- USC gained 19; BYU gained 10; USC advantage = 9.

Interceptions Gained -- USC picked 17; BYU picked 18; BYU advantage = 1.

BYU's passing defense pulled in about the same number of picks as USC's passing defense last year, but against inferior competition.

In their game against Georgia Tech, BYU forced three fumbles and one INT for a gain of four turnovers. This was partly offset by two INTs, one each by Berry and John Beck, for a net gain of two turnovers.

USC, in the Auburn game, forced two fumbles and one INT and gave none away, for a net turnover margin of three. The new USC defenders are picking up their turnover dominance, as they have done in the last two years.

In fumbles lost: USC lost eight while BYU lost 14. In interceptions lost, USC lost 10 to BYU's 21. USC clearly comes out looking far better in these two statistical categories. It should be noted again that these stats and comparisons carry less weight when you consider USC's numbers came against much stiffer competition last season.

If you want to really lose your appetite, don't look at comparative USC-BYU losses in fumbles and interceptions.

Lost Fumbles = 14; Lost INTs = 21; Failed 4th down attempts = 15

With the Trojans inexperienced quarterback and running backs, BYU has a window of opportunity. Unfortunately, the USC offensive line will be one of the best, if not the best, in the country. They return 4 of 5 starters from a team that knows how to win against top competition. USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow has to be pleased his offensive line will buy some time for his inexperienced backfield players.

If last year's stats have any real value now, the Cougars must be aware of USC's intent, plan, skill and ability to jar the ball loose and recover fumbles, just as they did at Auburn. It was one of their strengths last year and a lot of great players return on their defense.

One of the Cougars weaknesses was that quarterback Matt Berry threw too many picks last year. USC will eat him alive if he doesn't develop the patience to throw the ball away (or try to pick up two yards running) if the passing play isn't there.

The longer we make the field for USC's inexperienced quarterback and running backs, the greater the chance BYU will have them to cause fumbles or throw picks into Mendenhall's aggressive and confusing pressure defense.

If BYU revert to the form that put its defense in the hole 50 times last year from lost fumbles, lost interceptions and 4th down failures, game over.

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