Saturday, October 03, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: College football suffers from fumble-itis

Four words guaranteed to get your attention during a college football game: "The ball is loose!"

It's been loose a lot lately, just about everywhere you look.

Fumbles are up 7 percent from last season at the Division I-A level, and they've contributed greatly to much of the wackiness that we've witnessed during the first four weeks. A sampling:

  • USC put the ball on the ground four times in its loss at Washington, losing two.
  • A Jacory Harris fumble on Miami's first offensive series jump-started Virginia Tech's rout last week.
  • Maryland's game against Rutgers last week turned on a Terrapins fumble in their own end zone.
  • Needing a field goal to tie and a touchdown to win last week, Wake Forest fumbled in overtime to fall at Boston College.
  • Virginia put it on the ground five times in a season-opening defeat to William and Mary, losing four.
  • Even in victory, West Virginia fumbled five times against Colorado on Thursday night, despite having an extra week to prepare.

And that's the thing: Ball-security preparation often is in vain.

"We've been working on it every day all spring and all fall," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, whose team is minus-10 in turnover ratio. "Obviously, what we've been doing has not been successful."

So he tried something new this week: Punishing the whole offense with 10 up-downs for every turnover in practice.

Worth a try, anyway.

Coaches drill running backs on the fundamental tenets of ball security -- hold the ball properly, protect the ball with both hands when you're getting tackled, get on the ground once you've gotten all the yardage you can -- but the statistics indicate that defensive players are better trained at stripping the pigskin than ever.

For Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose team fumbled twice in the red zone and four times overall in a loss to South Florida last week, swapping in new personnel isn't the solution.

"They're all fumbling," he said. "If it was just one fumbling, then I'd know what to do with him: I'd get him out of there.

"I don't know anything more frustrating than to take the ball and move it 11 straight plays, knocking out about four or five first downs, and then fumble," he said. "You eat up five minutes, you move the ball 55 yards, you get down into scoring territory, and then you fumble. That is very frustrating. And all you can do is stand there with your hands on your hips and watch."

Sometimes, UVa coach Al Groh simply will bring a football into the team meeting. He'll tell the players that despite all the complexities of the game -- the on-the-fly adjustments, the formations, the reads -- "it's about what happens to this."

"The ball is the thing," Groh says.

The Cavaliers didn't lose any fumbles in their 16-13 victory last year over North Carolina, their opponent today. In starting 0-3 this year, the Cavs have put it on the ground an average of three times per game, losing two per contest.

The Hokies, meanwhile, face Duke today, the same team they struggled against last season in a 14-3 home victory. While Tech coach Frank Beamer lauded the way Duke "got after" the Hokies last year, a less tactful analysis points to Tech's three fumbles -- including two that were lost -- as critical plays that helped keep the Blue Devils in it.

Clearly, Duke will struggle to stay close today without help. And recently, the Hokies haven't been giving teams much. They've lost just one fumble in their past three games combined.

For all the highlights tailback Ryan Williams has brought to the Hokies this season, perhaps his greatest accomplishment is this: In 84 carries, he hasn't put it on the ground once. And that's despite repeated dogged battles for extra yards. His only fumble came on a punt return in the opener against Alabama, and the redshirt freshman quickly removed himself from that special teams unit.

Groh's right: The ball is the thing. And securing it is paramount, no matter which opponent you're playing.

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