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How critical are turnovers to BYU winning football games?

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BYU linebacker Butch Pau’u tackles a UCLA player in a game on Sept. 16, 2016. “One of the things we focused on last year was takeaways, being able to get the turnovers,” Pau’u said. “This year, the philosophy has been fundamentals. Focus on your fundamentals.” (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU)

If you win the turnover battle, you win football games. That’s a philosophy numerous football coaches embrace and preach to their teams. This idea certainly seems to make a ton of sense when you look at how BYU performed last season.

The Cougars overcame a 1–3 start to win nine games in Kalani Sitake’s debut season as head coach. Generating turnovers played a major role in paving a road to success. BYU had a knack for forcing opponents to make enough mistakes to keep games close even as it worked out several kinks on offense.

The Cougars snagged 21 interceptions last season — the highest number for any BYU team in a season since 1990. As a team, they ranked fourth nationally in that category. The Cougars also totaled 372 interception return yards, the second most in school history.

It helped BYU finish seventh nationally with a +12 turnover margin a year ago. The Cougars rose sharply in their ability to force turnovers under Sitake’s new defensive scheme and ended up with a negative turnover margin just twice in 13 games. In Bronco Mendenhall’s final season, BYU finished 89th among FBS teams with a +2 turnover margin.

Sitake said success in creating turnovers comes down to attitude and effort. The players wanted it to happen, so they made it happen.

“Our players buy in to what we’re asking them to do. But a lot of times capitalizing on turnovers is just being in the right spot and then having the attitude to make it happen.” — Kalani Sitake, BYU head football coach

“The players work really hard at it and I think our coaches on the defensive side do a good job of emphasizing creating turnovers,” Sitake said. “Our players buy in to what we’re asking them to do. But a lot of times capitalizing on turnovers is just being in the right spot and then having the attitude to make it happen. Those guys did a great job (last season). I’m hoping they do the same thing (this season). The way they’ve been flying around in camp, I feel really good about that group.”

Kai Nacua led the way for BYU in procuring turnovers with six interceptions. Nacua ranked seventh nationally in that category last season. Along the way, Nacua tied a single-season school record for interceptions that he originally set in 2015.

His ball hawking ability proved infectious. Ten different BYU players had at least one interception in 2016. Nine different Cougars recovered fumbles and 12 players forced fumbles.

“Kai led us to that, just having him showing us an example (helped),” said cornerback Dayan Ghanwoloku, who tied for second on the team last season with three interceptions. “Just go after the ball. Don’t just be a robot. That’s what we have in our heads: Don’t be a robot, just make plays.”

BYU defied conventional wisdom at times in winning the turnover battle. The Cougars actually lost two of the three games where they finished with a +3 turnover margin or better against their opponent.

(Infograph Rebecca Lane/UV360)

In a 51–9 win over Massachusetts, BYU gained four turnovers and finished with a +3 turnover margin. Against Utah and Boise State, on the other hand, multiple turnovers were not enough. The Cougars forced five turnovers against the Broncos — including a pair of pick-sixes — and finished with a +5 turnover margin in a 28–27 loss. BYU generated six turnovers against the Utes and finished with a +3 turnover margin in a 20–19 setback.

In the losses to Utah and Boise State, a lack of offensive execution derailed the Cougars. BYU totaled just 331 yards against the Utes and scored only 13 points off of the six turnovers. With Boise State, the Cougars offense mustered just 13 points and 322 total yards.

BYU is counting on having more punch on offense this season with Tanner Mangum starting at quarterback again. Duplicating their success on defense should give that offense greater effectiveness.

The goal for the Cougars in year two is to shore up the defense on all areas. They want to still create plenty of turnovers, but they want to get stops through good old-fashioned, hard-nosed defensive play as well.

“One of the things we focused on last year was takeaways, being able to get the turnovers,” linebacker Butch Pau’u said. “This year, the philosophy has been fundamentals. Focus on your fundamentals. That’s gone since spring to now.”

BYU fans will get their first look at the defense in 2017 when the Cougars host Portland State in their season opener on Saturday. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. MT on ESPN.

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