Game Might Turn On Turnovers

So far, the four BCS bowl games in 2008 have been won by the team which forced more turnovers. This year, LSU was one of the best teams in the country when it came to turnover margin, while Ohio State was mostly pedestrian. As a result, the Buckeyes hope something will give during tonight's title game.

NEW ORLEANS – Some members of the Ohio State football team say that Illinois already gave the Buckeyes a lesson by proving to the team that it is beatable.

They might be wise to learn something else from the Fighting Illini.

By popping in a tape of Illinois' New Year's Day loss to USC, Ohio State – or any team, really – could learn just how devastating turning over the football can be during a game on such a large stage.

Against the Trojans in the Rose Bowl, the Fighting Illini committed four turnovers to just one by USC. Two, in particular, were damaging.

With the Illini trailing 21-10 midway through the third quarter, Jacob Willis caught a pass inside the Trojans' 10-yard line before having the ball jarred loose. USC recovered and marched 80 yards to take a commanding 18-point lead. On Illinois' next drive, quarterback Juice Williams was intercepted. Five plays later, USC scored another touchdown to end any thoughts of a Fighting Illini upset.

"Not only does it give you as a team a lift, it gets the crowd going and all that incorporated is a lot of motivation for your team," linebacker Marcus Freeman said of forcing a turnover. "You look at a lot of the BCS games this year, turnovers are a big key to getting wins."

Freeman had clearly done his homework. All four Bowl Championship Series games to this point in 2008 have been won by the team that won the turnover battle. Georgia forced six Hawaii turnovers while committing just one during its 41-10 Sugar Bowl win, Oklahoma committed the only turnover of its 48-28 loss to West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, and Kansas forced Virginia Tech to give up the ball three times to the Jayhawks' one during their 24-21 Orange Bowl.

According to the numbers going into the national championship game tonight, LSU might be the team one would expect to have the better turnover margin. The Tigers have recovered 12 fumbles and intercepted 21 passes for 33 turnovers while committing just 15. On average, LSU finishes ahead 1.38 turnovers per game, good for a tie for second in the country. On the other hand, Ohio State actually has committed more turnovers than it has forced.

The Buckeyes check in at 67th in the country in turnover margin, having committed 19 turnovers while forcing only 18 themselves. Of those 19 turnovers, 12 have been passes leaving the arm of quarterback Todd Boeckman, who even on his better days seemed to have at least one ill-advised pass aimed toward a member of the opposing team.

Three times this year, the junior from St. Henry, Ohio, had multiple interceptions in one game. The lowlights came at Purdue Oct. 6 and against Illinois Nov. 10 when he threw three picks.

During his last two games, Boeckman has thrown for no touchdowns and four interceptions, statistics about which quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels said he is worried.

"Oh sure, always," he said when asked if the interceptions are a concern. "I think you've heard us talk enough about no turnovers, so you want zero. But I think he sort of went in a little bit of waves as far as that. I think there were some extenuating circumstances on a few of them. He'll be fine."

Daniels went on to add that there haven't been any common themes to the turnovers tossed by Boeckman this season, but he did have a bit of advice for his quarterback.

"Make sure he sees what he's throwing to," Daniels said. "Make sure that it's what he wants in the situation – don't just throw the football. That's about all you can tell him."

On the other side, LSU features a quarterback who has had his share of passes end up in the hands of opposing teams. Senior Matt Flynn threw 10 interceptions among his 332 passes. He has not tossed one over his two starts, but tossed a total of five in the two weeks prior against Alabama and Louisiana Tech.

Add in backup Ryan Perrilloux, who tossed two picks, and LSU's quarterbacks have thrown the same number of picks as Ohio State's.

One concern for Ohio State, though, is the lack of interceptions pulled in by the Buckeyes. Last year, the OSU defense hauled in 21 picks during the regular season, but while LSU had that same number this year, the Buckeyes' total has dwindled to 10.

That dip might be more the result of poor catching rather than any sort of lacking coverage techniques by the Buckeyes. Numerous times on the year, opposing quarterbacks tossed the ball to Buckeye defenders only to have them drop the ball. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins guessed that the OSU defense dropped about 14 would-be interceptions on the year.

"I've dropped about four myself," he said. "We want to take advantage of those if we can get them."

Safety Anderson Russell had a chance for multiple interceptions and instead came up with zero. At one point, Jenkins said he was jokingly calling a dropped pick an "Anderson."

With examples like that in mind, Freeman said the Buckeye defenders spent time during the bowl preparation working on their hands.

"We've been doing some more drills," he said. "That's something that if you want to win a game like this that you're going to have to do."

When it comes to the fumble game, LSU holds an advantage there. The Tiger defense has recovered 12 lost balls, compared to eight for OSU. But where LSU really excels is on the offensive side, as the Tigers have lost just three fumbles.

Those numbers were compiled mostly by the Tigers' tailbacks. Reserve Trindon Holliday's lost fumble against Tennessee in the SEC title game was the only one the Tiger tailbacks lost in 402 carries on the year. Starting running back Jacob Hester has gone 330 carries without losing a fumble, and his only career ball lost came in his first career game against Georgia in 2004.

Hester said that losing a fumble is the worst nightmare of running backs coach Larry Porter, who could barely stand to watch West Virginia fumble the ball five times during a Sept. 28 loss to South Florida.

"He got so nervous that night that he had us doing ball security in the hotel room," Hester said. "It's the first thing that we do before practice – ball security with the running backs. It's something that he definitely prides himself on so it made us pride ourselves on it."

So the Buckeyes will need to see some trends from the regular season change if they hope to win the turnover battle, but there has been a focus on the stat during preparation.

"Coach (Jim) Tressel always preaches turnover margin," Freeman said. "That's something that we're going to strive to do."

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