Turnover margin likely determines ASU-Utah winner
Utah has leaned on its defense and ridden its accomplishments to the top of the Pac-12 South. That's traditionally a good formula for those with championship aspirations.
The fourth-ranked Utes, additionally, have proven themselves particularly adept in the turnover department.
Next up is Saturday night's visit from an Arizona State team that was sloppy early on but has done a better job of keeping the ball in back-to-back wins.
Utah (5-0, 2-0) is in a three-way tie for the national lead in turnover margin at plus-2 per game. The Utes are plus-10 overall, rank tied for second with 17 takeaways and tied for third with 12 interceptions. They picked off California's Jared Goff, a Heisman Trophy candidate and expected high first-round draft pick, five times in last Saturday's 30-24 win over the then-No. 23 Golden Bears.
Turnover margin has always correlated to high levels of success.
Oregon advanced to the first College Football Playoff championship game last season with a nation-high plus-23 turnover margin and ranked No. 3 with 34 takeaways. National champion Ohio State had the second-most interceptions in the country.
Florida State set a school record with 26 interceptions and was No. 2 in the nation in turnover margin en route to winning the 2013 title.
"We have a defense that thinks we're the best in the country at what we do," linebacker Gionni Paul said. "We heard about how good Cal was taking away the ball. We wanted to prove to them that we're the dominant defense. We're the best defense doing it. The whole week we emphasized taking the ball away and flying to the ball."
The emphasis on takeaways has always been there, so it's not a new development. It's just paying off at an unexpected rate.
There's a 4-and-1 goal at every practice of four turnovers and one returned for a score. Strip drills and interception drills are incorporated into every session.
The Utes have had at least three turnovers in four of five games, including six against California, and average 3.4 turnovers per game. They're on pace for 28 interceptions, which would match the school record set in 1947.
Utah was minus-9 in turnover margin just two seasons ago with three total interceptions. Paul said turnovers have been especially stressed ever since.
"We've got a policy, no balls on the ground," Paul said. "Those opportunities (may) only come once in a game, so make the most of it."
Coach Kyle Whittingham and his defense made a statement with the way they toyed with Goff, a player widely considered the top quarterback in college through the first stretch of the season and one who had thrown only four picks before the trip to Salt Lake City.
Whittingham said they had to confuse a quarterback of that caliber, and they were able to do so by disguising their coverages.
"Disguising is a big part of playing good defense and you've got to be able to do a good job of not giving the quarterback a pre-snap look where he knows what's coming," Whittingham said.
The offense didn't do as much with those turnovers last week as Utah would have liked, but quarterback Travis Wilson said they get the offense going, too.
"It's huge for us," Wilson said. "It just gives us more excitement. We get hyped off it and it definitely brings a lot of juice to the entire team."
Arizona State (4-2, 1-1) turned the ball over nine times in the first four games but had just one each in wins at then-No. 7 UCLA and Colorado.
If the Sun Devils are to keep the momentum going, they'll have to play even better than they did the past two weeks.
"We're going up against probably the best opponent that we've played all season," quarterback Mike Bercovici said Monday. "We're excited about our matchup. We feel this is going to be a week that defines us as a program and as a brotherhood."
The back-to-back victories put Arizona State back in position to reach one of its goals, winning the South.
But to do that, the Sun Devils will need to beat Utah and keep playing well the rest of the season. Arizona State defeated the Utes in overtime last season in Tempe and has won 11 straight meetings, but Utah is a better team this season and will be playing at home.
"Obviously, it's a very difficult place to play," coach Todd Graham said. "It will be very loud, a very challenging place. But that's going on the road in the Pac-12. That's the way it is. But obviously they're very deserving of their fourth ranking in the country."