Forcing turnovers anchors OSU's success

The goal board sitting in the Oklahoma State meeting room is a consistent reminder of the team's turnover goal each time it takes the field: Four turnovers per game.

A simple goal. A lofty expectation.

That expectation is translating into results as the Cowboys have forced 22 turnovers this season, tied for 11th in the FBS. Their plus-10 turnover margin leads the Big 12 and is tied for fifth in the BCS, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

“We talk about it before every game, before every practice,” linebacker Shaun Lewis said. “The bottom line is effort. We want to bust our tails to the ball because we want to have as many Oklahoma State players around it as possible so the percentages of getting those turnovers go up.”

Turnovers have played a key role in several games this season. The Cowboys rode five second-half turnovers to a 33-29 win over Kansas State and a forced fumble helped OSU grab the early momentum and a 21-0 lead against Texas Tech in its 52-34 win last week.

While the Cowboys turnover trend may seem like luck, it’s not. It’s a calculated plan.

“I didn’t really realize the significance and importance of turnovers until I got to OSU,” senior linebacker Caleb Lavey said. “When you’re playing in the Big 12 and offenses can move the ball up and down the field [and] are high powered, it is a huge advantage to take a turnover form that offense and give [the ball] to our own. I learned quickly how important it was to defense and winning.”

As soon as Lewis and Lavey arrived in Stillwater, turnovers rose up the priority list in their minds.

“I don’t think I had one turnover in my high school career,” Lewis said. “As soon as I got here, everything just changed. Coaches take the time in practice to work on it. It can have huge implications, you get a turnover in a game, that changes everything. As soon as I got here, they stressed it and ever since I got here it’s been a priority.”

Forcing turnovers has been the foundation of the Cowboys' defense for several seasons. OSU ranks No. 3 nationally in forced turnovers since Mike Gundy took over the program in 2005 with 243, trailing Oregon (273) and Boise State (252).

When the Cowboys won their first outright Big 12 title in 2011, turnovers played a major role as they led the nation with 44 forced turnovers. Their turnover numbers dropped a season ago as OSU forced 22 turnovers in 2012 but its habit of getting turnovers has returned this season. The Cowboys' 22 turnovers tie for the Cowboys’ second most through eight games since 2000 (they had 29 in 2011). Much like that 2011 defense, this season’s opportunistic defense has put OSU in position to win a Big 12 title.

“It’s become so important for this group so it’s really similar,” said Lavey, a starter on the 2011 squad. “One thing about all the turnovers we had that year [2011] and this year is moving to the ball. One thing we really talk about is being able to force turnovers comes from effort to the ball. If the ball is stripped out, how many Oklahoma State defenders are around to get it? If the ball is in the air, how many guys are around to pick it or tip it up to another guy?”

It all starts in practice, where the Pokes' defense has a goal of getting five turnovers per practice. If they don’t, they run. That mentality is one reason OSU has forced a turnover in 13 straight games dating back to last season, second in the Big 12 to West Virginia (15).

“If you don’t reach your goal, you get the consequences,” Lavey said. “It’s not just giving the ball to the offense, it’s a huge momentum booster. It was a weapon we didn’t really have much last year so emphasizing it this year is a huge advantage for our defense.”

Gundy clearly recognized the importance of turnovers when he took over at his alma mater. Under Gundy, the Cowboys are 44-5 and have won 31 of 32 games since 2009 when winning the turnover battle. And as their turnover numbers rose, so did their winning percentage, as the team's 78.3 winning percentage since 2009 leads the Big 12.

“It’s engrained into the DNA of the defense here,” Lewis said. “It’s always in the back of our mind.”