Sunday, February 25, 2024

Gridders commit no turnovers

Minnesota's 3 turn into 17 Spartans points

Junior linebacker Ronald Stanley dives to recover a fumble from the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday while junior cornerback Roderick Maples runs up from behind in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Stanley made seven tackles in the 44-38 victory over Minnesota. —

Minneapolis - If MSU head coach John L. Smith were a real estate agent, his catch phrase would be, "Turnover, turnover, turnover."

Smith not only has turned the No. 11 Spartans' record around, from 4-8 to 7-1, but he's flipped their turnover margin as well.

"Turnover battle is the one key, other than the win-loss; is the stat you worry about really when it comes down to it," Smith said. "If you can win that stat, particularly on the road, you can win some games."

MSU entered the Metrodome Saturday ranked 4th in the nation in turnover margin, averaging 1.7 takeaways a game. Last year, the Spartans lost nine fumbles and threw 17 interceptions.

The Spartans increased that average with three forced fumbles, all in the first half, that they recovered against Minnesota. The turnovers turned into 17 points for the Spartans, including one on the opening kickoff that led to the first touchdown of the game.

After his team lost by six points to the Spartans, Minnesota coach Glen Mason said, "I am going to start by stating the obvious and most important part of the game - You can't turn the ball over and give up big plays on special teams in this league and expect to win the game."

Mason also said his teams' "fumbles were huge" in giving MSU a shorter field.

Sophomore running back Jaren Hayes, who scored the game's first touchdown after freshman cornerback Kiel Beltinck forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, said scoring early after the turnover was important to Saturday's victory.

"It was very big for us to get on the scoreboard first," Hayes said, "Because Minnesota controls the ball because they run so well."

Mark Goebel recovered the kickoff fumble, while junior free safety Jason Harmon and sophomore linebacker Seth Mitchell also forced fumbles in the opening half. The other two fumbles were recovered by junior linebacker Ronald Stanley and senior linebacker Mike Labinjo.

Through the eight games this season, MSU has scored 84 points off 23 turnovers. With 255 total points, turnovers have led to just under one-third of the Spartans' scores.

The defense has forced 16 fumbles and recovered 11 of them, and also has picked off 12 of opponents' passes.

Junior free safety Jason Harmon has returned a fumble for a touchdown, while senior bandit Monquiz Wedlow and senior defensive end Greg Taplin have each returned interceptions for touchdowns. Labinjo leads the team with three interceptions.

On the other side of the ball, the Spartans' offense has only given up the ball eight times this season.

After throwing five interceptions in non-conference play, senior quarterback Jeff Smoker hasn't thrown any in Big Ten action. Sophomore receiver Agim Shabaj threw an interception against Rutgers on a trick play.

The Spartans have fumbled the ball 11 times this season, but have only lost it two times.

With four games left in the conference, the Spartans will have to hold onto their positive turnover margin. Two of MSU's final games are on the road and three are against ranked opponents. After three weeks of Big Ten play, none of MSU's final foes had a positive turnover ratio.

Smith the real estate agent knows that location of the ball is key, but it's the turnovers, turnovers, turnovers that will give the team good position, not only on the field, but in MSU's campaign for its first outright conference title since 1987.

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