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Oklahoma State football: Can Cowboys get back on the turnover train?

OSU FOOTBALL — Oklahoma State had the nation's best turnover margin last year and were ranked among the best in turnovers forced. But this year, the Cowboys are struggling to force turnovers and the ones they have created are coming from second-teamers.
BY GINA MIZELL, Staff Writer, Published: October 6, 2012

The troubles of Oklahoma State cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown were apparent against Texas, with both getting called for pass interference and Gilbert getting out-jumped by Mike Davis on a 32-yard pass on the Longhorns' game-winning drive.

But they are also at the forefront of a bigger problem for the Cowboys. Last season, Brown and Gilbert accounted for 10 interceptions. This season they don't have any.

What happened to the opportunistic Cowboy defense that forced an NCAA-best 44 turnovers and led the nation with a plus-21 turnover margin a season ago? The one that sometimes bent, but thrived on momentum-shifting plays that gave the ball back to a high-powered OSU offense that is still churning out yards and points?

“I have no idea,” Gilbert said. “But they'll come sooner or later.”

Based on defensive coordinator Bill Young's track record, Gilbert's prediction wouldn't normally be off-target.

Since Young returned to Stillwater in 2009, the Cowboys have forced at least 30 turnovers a season and ranked in the top 11 in the nation in that category. That's Young's philosophy, and what the coaches preach and teach in practice. They adopted a two-whistle rule, where even after the play has been blown dead, the defenders try to strip the ball.

But the results haven't been there so far this season, as the Cowboys have forced just four turnovers through the first four games of 2012. That's nowhere close to Young's goal of forcing three per game.

“Any point in time, we get a turnover (and) we shorten the field for our offense, we're in the money,” Young said. “We're out there (Tuesday) yelling and screaming as coaches at the players. So that's critical.”

Though OSU has consistently been able to take the ball away from its opponent during Young's tenure, research from Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders illustrates how difficult it is to duplicate forcing such a high volume of turnovers from one season to the next.

From 2007-2010, 26 teams were at least plus-15 in turnover margin. Nine of those had a negative turnover margin the next season, and 22 had its turnover margin decline by at least 10. Fremeau calculates that the correlation of turnover margin from year to year over the last five seasons is only .190.

“Turnovers and turnover margin aren't particularly consistent from year to year,” Fremeau said. “…Almost all of the metrics I post at Football Outsiders have stronger year-to-year correlations, and all but the special teams ones are significantly stronger.”

Missing from the 2011 OSU defense are Jamie Blatick, Richetti Jones and Markelle Martin, who accounted for six forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and two interceptions last season. But based on 2011 success, returners like Brown (five interceptions, two fumble recoveries), Gilbert (five interceptions, one fumble recovery), Shaun Lewis (two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble) and Alex Elkins (one interception, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries) have underachieved.

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