Stanford preaches turnovers on both sides of ball

(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)By ANTONIO GONZALEZAP Sports Writer

Stanford coach David Shaw has had to increasingly answer more questions about how and why the Pac-12’s top-ranked defense can’t seem to force an interception.

Not this week.

On the 172nd passing attempt of the season, safety Michael Thomas finally broke the cold streak when he picked off Tyler Hansen’s pass in the fourth quarter of the Cardinal’s 48-7 rout of Colorado on Saturday. For a defense that is allowing a league-low 10.6 points per game, erasing that perplexing omission has been the No. 1 goal.

”It’s huge. When it doesn’t happen, then you get 100 questions why it hasn’t happened yet,” Shaw said Tuesday. ”As much as we try to get our guys to be shielded by it, when your family and friends and everybody is saying it, `You guys don’t have an interception, you don’t have an interception, you don’t have an interception.’ Now you get it. Great. Now let’s try to get it some company.”

Turnovers have been hard to come by on both sides of the ball.

While the interception was the defense’s first in five games, No. 7 Stanford’s offense (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) is tied for the fewest turnovers in the nation. The Cardinal have lost the ball only three times all season heading into Saturday’s matchup at Washington State (3-2, 1-1), setting the pace with LSU, Wisconsin and Texas Tech.

Two of those came on passes by Andrew Luck that were intercepted, with both coming on balls tipped by receiver Chris Owusu that likely should have been caught – or at the very least, not popped up.

While the offense has been among the best at ball control, the lack of an interception has weighed heavily on the defense in recent weeks.

Stanford’s defense has dominated for long stretches in every game and is perhaps the biggest reason outside of that Heisman Trophy candidate that the team has outscored opponents 231-53 this season. The interception streak lasted so long it became a running punchline on the sidelines every time somebody whiffed on an interception.

”We’ve been making jokes about it the whole time,” Thomas said. ”So I’m glad it happened.”

Turnovers could play a big role in the season’s second half.

After a trip to Pullman this weekend, bigger matchups loom ahead. Stanford will face Washington, Southern California, Notre Dame and Oregon – with a potential spot in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game at stake – among others and might not only need wins but style points to remain in the national title hunt.

Shaw has emphasized forcing turnovers, and not just ones that come in the air. The Cardinal have recovered six fumbles this season, alleviating some of the secondary’s shortcomings, but he’d still like to see improvement from the secondary.

”What I love about it, even with all that chatter about interceptions, our guys haven’t been running out of position to try to make it happen,” Shaw said. ”We’ve got our hands on balls. It’s not like guys are running wide open. We’ve had a couple chances. It’s just the way that it is. There’s nothing schematically we have to change.”

For every area that Stanford falls short in, it seems to balance it out by excelling elsewhere.

The Cardinal are second only to Alabama in rushing defense, allowing 61.8 yards on the ground per game. Shaw believes the chunks of yards passing (240.6 average) against Stanford’s defense is a bit misleading because his team has had large leads in every game, forcing teams to throw more – and often with the outcome already decided.

Stanford’s goal is to give Luck and the offense as many opportunities as possible, and the only way to improve in that aspect is to force more turnovers. Getting that first interception was a start.

”That was something we definitely needed to get done,” cornerback Johnson Bademosi said. ”That’s the first of many to come.”

Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP