First, let's look at 2002, when WVU enjoyed that whopping +19 turnover rating. The Mountaineers played 13 games that season. During those games, WVU averaged nearly 1.5 more possessions per game, thanks to the positive turnover margin. Think those didn't have a big effect in the close wins over Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, Boston College or Pitt? Or play just as big a factor in WVU's season ending bowl loss?
If not, look at it this way. WVU averaged 30.4 points per game in 2002. Given an average of ten possessions per game, that's an extra 4.5 points per contest - just because the Mountaineers excelled at taking the ball away! The numbers in 2003 were only slightly lower (+16) but the results were the same. West Virginia was fifth in the nation with 36 takeaways last year - which led directly to WVU's second straight bowl trip.
Need more proof? West Virginia did not win a game last year in which it came out on the negative end of the turnover battle. Can it get more definitive?
What made WVU so good in this area the past two seasons? First is the fact that the Mountaineer coaching staff preaches ball security on offense and attacking the pigskin on defense. Steve Bird and Calvin Magee work constantly with their charges on locking the ball away, while Bill Stewart and Rich Rodriguez preach good decision making to their quarterbacks. The results? Fewer turnovers committed, which gives West Virginia a leg up in the turnover battle.
There's also turnover teaching on the defensive side, but here the focus is on creating them. Defenders work in practice on stripping the ball, both during scrimmage situations and in one on one drills.
WVU was also blessed to have one of the best strippers in recent memory on their defense during the past four seasons. Grant Wiley undressed more players that dancers at the Gold Club during his career, and he led the Mountaineer stop troops in their assault on the ball during their record run.
Wiley forced nine fumbles and added four interceptions from 2003-04, and created a mindset among his teammates that the ball was going to come out when tackles were made. The Mountaineers forced an incredible 42 fumbles in 2003, and although WVU was only able to recover 15, the havoc created by loose balls certainly weighed heavily on the minds of opposing teams.
Finally, if this stat doesn't do it for you, nothing will. In 2003, WVU was fourth in the nation in turnover margin. In 2002, the Mountaineers were also fourth in the nation. Detecting a pattern yet?
As the 2004 season looms, we're all wondering if a pass rush will be found, or if the intermediate passing game will become more reliable, or if the thin corps at linebacker holds up through the season. Important matters, yes, but not the most important one. Will Rasheed Marshall continue his outstanding job of protecting the ball? Will WVU's backs and receivers continue to secure it? Will someone (or someones) be able to generate the number of loose balls that Grant Wiley did, or snare 11 interceptions (as Brian King and Lance Frazier combined to do)?
Bold prediction time: While the Mountaineers might be a bit more talented in 2004, if they don't generate at least a +10 turnover ratio this year, they are not likely to match their success of the last two seasons.