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October 9, 2011

Takeaways tell the story for Sun Devils

Turnovers have an obvious impact on football games; so overly discussed in an over-simplified way, it's curious that coaches haven't given up pretenses and adopted an all-out reductionist approach to their mantras for the press: "It will be a battle of touchdowns and field goals," or, "The score will ultimately determine the outcome."

When you steal/are gifted five turnovers -- or some combination thereof -- without committing one, the likelihood of winning is nearly as high as when you've outscored the opponent after 60 minutes.

Just so happens Arizona State did both in its most recent season-defining, program-changing, paradigm-shifting, trajectory-altering, it's time win over Utah, 35-14.

Was it important to win on the road over a Pac-12 opponent, one that many assumed would be ASU's prime competition for the South division?

Without a doubt; it was probably the biggest road win since its comeback against UCLA in 2007. Maybe it was bigger, only the next six plus games will show.

But just as the fluke turnovers from quarterback Brock Osweiler in the loss against Illinois should be used to help contextualize the loss, just as a wide-range of fluky events leading to losses in the previous three years should help contextualize the state of the program (and mitigate the criticisms against it), so too should the team's recent fortune be examined.

In ASU's monster wins this year -- Utah and USC -- it won by a combined 42 points.

The more important number from those contests is plus-nine.

That's the Sun Devils combined turnover margin.

It's important to note that when the NCAA numbers get crunched this weekend, ASU will likely be in the top ten in turnover margin. It's currently plus-eight, meaning in the other four games most consider far less impressive, the Sun Devils were minus-one.

It looks like an old scorecard of the first six holes from the woebegone John Daly, and in a sense it's about as reliable. But the sequence of the numbers point to something mysterious -- to some deterministic and others fortuitous -- that have (magically) lined up in the Sun Devils' favor in 2011, just in the nick of time for some.

First though, the problem is that turnovers are like macro-economics and quantum physics -- things people love to talk about, have multiple interpretations, but can't be fully explained.

Turnovers make sense of the past, but have little predictive power for the future.

According to statistical analysis done by Phil Steele, turnovers in college football follow a Pareto principle: teams with a double digit turnover margin one year are only 20 percent likely to increase their record the next, while teams with a negative double digit margin one year have the same odds of decreasing their win total the following season.

Basically, high turnover margins have a great influence on win totals, but such margins are pretty random.

ASU's turnover margin last year was minus-six, and in 2009 it was minus-two. Is it possible that this year's success is flukier than the failures of the last two seasons?

The answer is no, because of the point margin. ASU's turnover margin had greater significance in win/loss outcomes because the losses were very close and largely attributable to the negative point margin. So far this year, ASU blew out the two teams it had a large positive turnover margins against.

In the seminal book on advanced statistics in football, The Hidden Game of Football, the authors concluded through statistical research that a turnover in football is worth roughly four points -- two for the team getting the ball and two for the team losing the ball.

While it has no real world application, and is significantly flawed statistically and logically, one could say the Sun Devils outscored the Utes by one point overall (+5 turnover margin x4 points = 20, ASU won by 21), and the Trojans by five (+4 turnover margin x4 points = 16, ASU won by 21).

In three of ASU's losses last year, its margin of defeat was smaller than the turnover point margin. Deducting the four points for turnovers, ASU would have theoretically beaten Oregon, Wisconsin and Oregon State.

But all of that does nothing to explain what turnovers are, and how they happen.

On one hand, ASU's taken advantage of a lot of inexperienced quarterbacks this year, including three first year starters. One who favors the randomness explanation would point to the high rate of fumble recoveries to fumbles created, and use the anecdote of linebacker Vontaze Burfict being seemingly out of position on a blitz to peel back on a screen for a pick against USC.

On the other hand, someone who favors a more deterministic, cause-effect explanation would say the ASU defense has created a lot more pressure on the quarterback, had better coverage downfield and has given itself more opportunities to create turnovers through game situations and leads, which is in part attributable to a lower turnover rate on offense.

In lieu of any real ability to explain these things, it's probably fair to say it's both.

But this season, specifically in two of the most important games for the program in many years, USC and Utah, something higher seems to be at work at the moments of truth. Maybe it's as simple as an amplified awareness of turnovers, similar to momentum -- a contagious surge of energy that flows from defensive player to defensive player, seemingly instantaneously. And maybe the offense has a reciprocal fear reaction to a more aggressive, ball-hawking defense, creating a sort of negative self-awareness that leads to mistakes.

The bottom line is this: The Sun Devils created three turnovers in five plays against the Utes, which is the best explanation for the game's outcome. Two weeks prior against USC, the Sun Devils created three turnovers in a similar stretch of time and in similar circumstances.

Sometimes you just have a feeling -- one you can't explain, one that doesn't seem like it will go away this (increasingly magical) season.


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