Iowa prepares for a tough, evenly-matched Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen
The turnover turnaround that’s taken place for Iowa football this season has been universally welcomed and almost equally difficult to explain inside the Hawkeye camp.
Ask a dozen members of the Big Ten championship-bound Hawkeyes how they’ve wound up on the opposite end of the turnover-margin category and you might get 12 different underlying reasons.
Maybe a small part of it has to do with Akrum Wadley’s practice of walking around campus carrying his textbooks tucked high and tight against his chest like he’s protecting a football.
Perhaps some of it, as running back Jordan Canzeri believes, is a competitive spillover for a team that pays closer attention to its responsibilities away from the field.
A share of the credit, of course, also belongs to the conscientious quarterback, the takeaway-inclined defense and the meticulous head coach who regularly underlines ball security but put it in bold-face type as well in recent months.
Whatever the reasons, the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes are 12-0 in part because they’re plus-14 in turnover margin entering Saturday night’s Big Ten title game against No. 5 Michigan State. Iowa is tied with the Spartans at fourth nationally and tops in the Big Ten in the category.
“We’ve put an emphasis on it this year,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said.
The Big Ten football championship will be decided in Indianapolis as Iowa takes on Michigan State.
Last year, the top three FBS teams in turnover margin — Oregon, Michigan State and TCU — finished in the top five in the final Associated Press rankings. Another telling statistic: Iowa reached the 30-takeaway mark four times in coach Kirk Ferentz’s first 16 seasons — 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2009 — and combined to win 41 games in those years.
The Hawkeyes have collected 25 takeaways on defense this season and their offense has been far less charitable than a year ago. Iowa has turned the ball over 11 times, half as many as last season.
“I think it starts with the quarterback,” fullback Adam Cox said. “That’s one of C.J.’s strong suits. He’s smart with the football. He’s not throwing picks, throwing wild passes up and the running backs are doing a great job holding on to the ball and keeping two hands on it when they’re in tight quarters.
“And I think it starts with the head coach having that as a mindset that we can’t lose the ball if we want to win games.”
It’s not hard to figure out why it became a bullet point for the Hawkeyes this season. They ranked 102nd nationally last year in turnover margin when they were minus-six, mainly due to a confluence of fumbles lost (15) and a lack of fumbles recovered (3 — only West Virginia and Oklahoma State had fewer).
Sure, there’s an element of good fortune associated with turnover margin. Iowa fumbled three times last Friday against Nebraska and lost only one. Conversely, the Hawkeyes fell on five of the six fumbles they forced in road wins against Wisconsin and Northwestern.
But luck only goes so far in the turnover category. It’s no accident Michigan State finished 10th in the country in turnover margin in 2013, second last year and the Spartans are back in the top five again now.
“Seems like they take the same approach as us,” Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said. “They don’t make many mistakes. They definitely play clean football.”
Fisher’s last sentence is a phrase from the Ferentz football manual, which is filled with expressions the Hawkeyes regularly hear on the practice field that pertain to ball security.
“He always says the ball is important, and he says it all practice long,” Beathard said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re walking back to the back of the line, he’ll say, ‘Keep it up high and tight, that ball is important.’”
Those words apparently registered with Wadley, who became an integral piece of Iowa’s backfield this season after fumble issues limited his workload earlier in his career.
“I’ve heard him say he’s been walking with his books high and tight during the week,” Canzeri said. “It’s shown on the field that he’s focused on it. He’s done so much better and come such a long way since last year.”
So, too, have the Hawkeyes.
“To me, it’s a reflection of everything else, we’re doing little things a little bit better right now,” Ferentz said. “It could be positioning, better technique when you’re tackling, breaking on the ball, anticipation, which might be film study. There’s just a lot of things that go into it.
“When you are doing things right and really honed in, I think you've got a better chance for the takeaways, and then conversely, ball security is everybody's issue. If an offensive lineman cuts a guy loose and he knocks the crap out of a back or a quarterback, there goes the ball. Same thing on special teams. So it's not just the guy with the ball, it's a real team-shared responsibility.
“I think these guys have just really done a good job of tuning into the things that we're really trying to emphasize, and that's one of the biggest things we emphasize is playing clean.”