Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris is still looking for one more addition to his impressive stat sheet this season. The senior linebacker is second among the Spartans with 82 total tackles and tied third in the tackles for loss category. But Harris is still searching for his first takeaway, which makes him a rarity on this defense.
Harris is one of three regular starters on defense who has yet to register an interception, a fumble recovery or a forced fumble this season. His teammates combined to produce a conference-best 28 turnovers this year. The Spartans' ability to get the back ball for their offense has been an underrated equalizer this fall and could serve the same purpose on New Year’s Eve.
“We have certain things that are our keys to winning that we look at week in and week out. Turnover margin is a huge thing for us,” Harris said. “We’ve done such a great job in the past couple years of doing that. That’s kept us in games and won games for us.”
Third-ranked Michigan State will head to Dallas later this week as nearly double-digit underdogs to No. 2 Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. A quick look at the numbers explains why. From recruiting rankings to scoring offense to defensive yards allowed, the Crimson Tide hold an advantage in most statistical categories. One of the few areas where Mark Dantonio’s team has consistently outperformed Nick Saban’s team during the last few years is turnover margin.
The Spartans finished fourth among FBS teams this season with a turnover margin of plus-16. Alabama was still on the positive side(plus 7), but not quite as high. Coaches often point to turnovers as one of the best indicators of success, and the theory holds up in East Lansing. During its 36-4 run in the last three seasons, Michigan State has ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin all three years.
Harris said that consistency comes from the mental approach the Spartans take when trying to pry the ball free from their opponents.
“I think it’s a mindset,” he said. “Just practicing day in and day out, when there are opportunities to take the ball, taking the ball. Completing those interceptions in practice, actually catch the ball. Going for strips of ball carriers in practice. Picking up fumbles off the ground. Understanding when you have to fall on it if people are around or if you’re in the open field and can pick it up and run with it. When you continuously do that in practice it becomes habit.”
The offense has played some role in helping the turnover margin. Michigan State committed only 12 turnovers this season. Starting quarterback Connor Cook threw only five interceptions throughout the year. There have only been two games in the last three years when an opposing defense has managed three or more takeaways against Michigan State.
What may be even more consequential for the Spartans is how often they make other teams pay for their mistakes. They outscored opponents 108-27 in points off of turnovers this season. More than a quarter of their points have come on drives started by a takeaway. They converted 28 takeaways into 15 touchdowns and a field goal. On the other side, Michigan State allowed only three touchdowns (two of which came against Ohio State) and two field goals after coughing up the ball.
For a team that won six games this season by a touchdown or less, the ability to strike after a sudden change in possession may have been the difference between a middling bowl game this month and a spot in the College Football Playoff. In a little more than a week, it could be in the difference between heading home with a loss and playing for a national championship.