West Virginia has been among the nation's leaders in this area over the past two seasons, and there's no doubt that their success in this vital metric led directly to the 17 wins they enjoyed over that span.
'Ahh,' you're thinking. 'It's gotta be rushing yardage, right?'
Good guess, but not where I'm headed. While grinding out yardage on the ground has always been a good indicator of success (not to mention a favorite pastime of both Greg Hunter and myself), it's not the number one factor.
With that stat out of the way, most of you have probably gotten it by now. But, just in case you haven't, here's a few numbers.
Last year, WVU just did it 20 times. Opponents, however, committed the act on 36 occasions. In 2002, the numbers were even better. The Mountaineers had just 15 occurences, while foes racked up 34.
Of course, we're talking about turnovers. And the big margin that West Virginia enjoyed in this category was the biggest single factor in their success over the past two seasons.
Don't get the idea, however, that I'm saying WVU was lucky to get the wins they did. Far from it. There's just as much skill involved in protecting the ball, or stealing it from opponents, as there is in making a leaping catch or throwing a crushing block. And while the bounce of a fumble or the path of a deflected pass might not always go your way, force enough of them, and pretty soon you're going to get one. And in tight games, those kinds of plays make the difference.
Let's take just one example from last season - WVU's big win over Pitt. Everyone remembers John Pennington's awesome TD catch to tie the game in the first half, and Quincy Wilson's 208-yard, four-TD performance, but it was really a turnover that changed the game.
On Pitt's first possession of the second half, with the score tied at 24, Grant Wiley made an acrobatic interception in the Mountaineer end zone to stem the Panthers' effort to retake the lead. Had they scored there, the game might have continued as a seesaw affair. However, Wiley's interception, followed on the next series by a Lawrence Audena pick, took all the wind out of the Evil Empire's sails, and WVU cruised to a 52-31 win.
Now, not many people remember those picks. And there's no denying that Pennington's catch and Quincy's steamroller performance deserve their places in Mountaineer lore. But it was those two interceptions that turned the tide of the game completely in WVU's favor.
Turnovers, like special teams, have become something of a cliche. Watch, listen or read any comments about an upcoming game, and "winning the turnover battle" is almost sure to come up. Keep in mind, however, that many cliches were built on fundamental truths, and there's no more basic one in football than the one which reads "You can't score without the ball."
So, just how important is a turnover in the grand scheme of things? Bigger than many people give them credit for. Even turnovers that don't immediately result in scores can affect the game by changing momentum or improving field position, not to mention the psychological lift that the defense gets by taking the ball away.
For West Virginia, the bedrock of their return to bowl games the past two seasons was built on protecting the ball when they owned it, and taking it away when they didn't. Simple, yes. Fundamental, yes. And very successful.
Part two of our look at WVU's positive turnover margin goes deeper inside the numbers, and looks ahead to the prospects for repeating that success in 2004.