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Turnover margin key in 'U' success

October 8, 2003
Junior defensive end Clifford Dukes recovers an Indiana fumble during Saturday's game. The Spartans won 31-3. —

It seems simple enough, but in recent years, MSU has had a problem keeping control of the football.

With the re-emergence of quarterback Jeff Smoker and linebacker Mike Labinjo, one of the major reasons for the Spartans' early success is winning the turnover battle.

The past two seasons, the Spartans (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) gave up the football 52 times and gained it on an opposition turnover 44 times. But in 2003, MSU has done a complete 180, taking the ball 17 times and only losing it eight.

"That's the one stat that you should worry about other than the win-loss stat," head coach John L. Smith said. "If we can continue to do that then we will continue to win games. We've got to get the ball to our offense and not give it up."

The team currently is ranked sixth in the nation in turnover ratio - the figure of how many more turnovers a team gains than its opponents each game - at 1.50.

They only rank behind Washington State, Nebraska, Texas, Toledo and Wake Forest. And as the rankings go, so do the team's records. The top six teams are 25-7, while the worst six are 5-26.

"I bet if you went through and analyzed that stat alone, it would be amazing how much difference that would make," Smith said.

In fact, in the past 23 years, the team with the best turnover margin in the Big Ten has won or tied for the conference championship 14 times and only five times did it not finish in the top two in the conference standings.

The worst finish by a team that won the conference in turnover margin, however, was last season when Wisconsin had a 1.29 margin and finished eighth in the Big Ten.

"We try to get the turnovers and keep our offense on the field," senior defensive end Greg Taplin said. "It's part of our focus."

Taplin has done his part in the turnover effort, intercepting a Carlyle Holiday pass and returning it 40 yards for a touchdown to give the Spartans enough points to beat the Irish in South Bend, Ind.

The major factor has been the new look of whip linebacker Labinjo. The senior from Toronto morphed into a smaller, more agile version during the offseason, which has turned into an abundance of turnovers. He currently has three interceptions and a fumble recovery.

The biggest surprise in the secondary has been defensive back Darren Barnett, who has two interceptions and earned the starting cornerback spot over Ashton Watson after the season's second game.

"I think it goes more with the style of what we do than with other styles," Smith said. "We gamble now, we're gonna roll the dice - you just hope you hit on more than they do and that's what we've been able to do. And the gambles have been calculated - it's not just a total at-will gamble."

The main concern for the Spartans in turnovers came early in the third quarter against Indiana, when, on consecutive drives, the Spartans had two fumbles. But, each time, the Spartans recovered their own drop.

"Even when we were fumbling last game, there was always someone around to recover it," junior running back DeAndra Cobb said. "So that just tells us that we're doing our best with conditioning in practice."

On the first drive of the half, senior guard Joe Tate recovered an Eric Knott fumble, while Smoker recovered his own fumble. On the second drive, Jaren Hayes recovered two fumbles - one of his own and one from sophomore wide receiver Matt Trannon.

"We had four on one drive," Smith said. "You can look at that and say, 'Yeah, we are lucky, fortunate and that sloppiness has to be corrected.

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