Alabama shows knack for hanging onto ball
Trent Richardson hasn't lost a fumble in a couple of years, but he figures the consequences are pretty clear.
''We fumble that ball,'' Alabama's star tailback says, ''we're going to be on the bench somewhere.''
Add the second-ranked Crimson Tide's nearly maternal instinct to protect the football to the primary reasons why this team hasn't been challenged through six games this season.
Formidable running game. Downright nasty defense. Winning the turnover battle. Not necessarily in that order, according to coach Nick Saban.
''I think that turnover ratio is a critical factor, the most critical statistical factor in winning and losing,'' Saban said Monday.
Given how lopsided Bama's games have been so far, it has at least factored into margin of victory. The Tide (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) hasn't given any extra opportunities to teams like Penn State, Florida or Arkansas with drive-killing fumbles or costly interceptions.
Alabama had five turnovers in the season opener with Kent State while breaking in two quarterbacks. Since then, the Tide has only turned it over twice, on fumbles in a blowout win over North Texas.
That helps explain why `Bama, which also has committed the nation's second-fewest penalties, is outscoring opponents by an average of 38-7. Quarterback AJ McCarron has thrown 127 consecutive passes without getting picked off since he and Phillip Sims each threw a pair of interceptions in the opener. He has avoided such mistakes at Penn State and Florida, and threw four touchdowns against a Vanderbilt defense that came in with a nation's best 14 interceptions.
McCarron's predecessor, Greg McElroy, had interception streaks of 149 and 141 passes in two seasons as starter. Brodie Croyle holds the school record (190).
Richardson has a much longer streak. The tailback and kick returner has 387 consecutive touches without losing a fumble, dating back to the 2009 game with Mississippi; where the Tide plays Saturday night.
''It's a real big part of the game,'' he said. ''When you turn the ball over, it just really changes your whole momentum, your mindset. Your head's probably messed up most of the time. You're thinking about that play and stuff like that. Us not turning the ball over, we can get on to the next play and don't worry about it. No setbacks.''
As for Saban's correlation to turnovers and winning and losing, only top-ranked LSU (three) and Tennessee (six) have committed fewer turnovers in the SEC than the Tide's seven, though the opening performance skews Alabama's numbers.
The Tide leads the nation in scoring and rushing defense. Only three SEC teams, however, have forced fewer turnovers.
Clearly, the defense does just fine without swiping the ball frequently. Holding onto it is more pivotal for an offense that thrives with runs and short and mid-range passes.
McCarron has followed in McElroy's footsteps in taking care of the ball and not forcing passes. McElroy threw only four interceptions in 325 attempts as a first-year starter during Alabama's 2009 national championship run.
''AJ's done for the most part a pretty good job of putting the ball in the right place,'' Saban said. ''That's what we coach. I don't think anybody coaches turnovers, but it comes down to judgment. I don't think they have baseball manuals to teach guys to swing at balls out of the strike zone, but some guys do it a lot more than others. It comes down to judgment.
''Ball security is an awareness fundamentally that every player that handles the ball has to have, so that we don't have turnovers.''