From head coach Dana Holgorsen., through every media member to every fan, the knowledge of the need for improvement in West Virginia's turnover margin in 2015 is well-known. Daily work on the turnover circuit, which includes stripping and ball protection techniques of every stripe, were apparent throughout spring and fall practices. There's not much more, short of the use of hammers and tongs, that West Virginia's coaching staff could have done to emphasize the importance of protecting the rock, or prying it loose from the opposition.
Once the ball is on the ground, though, there's an element of luck that comes into play. And an examination of WVU's stats in that area are eye-opening -- and suggest that normal statistical probability might be in favor of a Mountaineer turnaround. Add in hoped-for good results from all those drills, and West Virginia might just be able to balance up the massive deficit it suffered last year.
First, a couple of notes. We're focusing on fumbles here, because the number of fumbles and recoveries are quantifiable statistics. Interceptions are a bit more nebulous to categorize.
Second, a reasonable assumption might be that offenses and defenses would be expected to split recoveries on a 50-50 basis, but that's not necessarily the case. For example, when a player fumbles, he's more often than not close to the ball, which gives the offense a slight advantage in jumping on it. Certainly there are instances where a hit sends the ball caroming away, but on the majority of bobbles the fumbler has a shot at making the tackle. Also playing into that is that when someone drops the ball, he knows immediately that he dropped it. Sometimes, a defender making the hit that caused the fumble doesn't know it came loose -- again giving the offensive player a bit of an advantage in recovering it.
Trying to put those things into a "recoverability percentage" is tough - I'm no John Nash. But I'd think that defenses might reasonably expect a 40-45% recovery rate, taking into account the offense edge discussed above. But a look at WVU, especially last year, shows numbers so far out of whack as to reset the curve.
In 2014, the Mountaineers fumbled the ball 28 times and lost 19 of them -- a defensive recovery rate of 67.9%. That constitutes WVU's worst offensive lost fumble rate of the previous ten years, eclipsing the 66.7% loss rate in 2010. Only three times in that decade did WVU exceed 60% fumble losses, and in many years it was much lower.
On the flip side, the Mountaineer defense saw the ball on the ground just 13 times in 2014 and recoved but two -- a woeful recovery rate of 15.4%. That's by far the lowest WVU total of the decade -- the previous low was 32% way back in 2006. .
Now, does this mean that West Virginia was bad .atn forcing fumbles, or just bad at protecting the ball? Over the past ten years, WVU has fumbled the ball 246 times -- an average of 24.6 per year. So, it's 28 bobbles last year isn't way out of the norm. What does stretch the bounds is the loss rate -- the highest over the period. On the defensive side, opponents fumbled the ball 232 times, for an average of 23.2 per season. That's reasonably close to WVU's fumble total, so no big statistical anomaly there. Again, though, what jumps off the page is WVU's ability to recover those miscues.
Is there a talent to getting on the ball once it's on the ground? Perhaps. As part of its turnover circuit, WVU has every player practice scooping up bouncing balls or falling on them. That could pay dividends. But more likely, it's the bounce of the ball that is coming into play here. WVU got some bad ones, opponents got some good ones, and the Mountaineers wind up -17 in the fumbles lost margin in 2014. At some point, those will even out -- or maybe even skyrocket in West Virginia's favor. And if that happens, neagative turnover margin won't be a story that defines the 2015 season.