Wednesday practice sessions for the LSU football team may be the most competitive of the week’s preparation for the next game.
In fact, it’s arguably as competitive, if not more, than the contest itself.
When the Tigers buckle up their chinstraps and take the practice field at midweek, it’s “Turnover Wednesday” for the defense and “No Turnover Wednesday” for the offense, as coach Ed Orgeron dubs them.
Turnover margin is the most important aspect of a game, coaches everywhere preach, but Orgeron has taken it a step farther.
Using last year’s top FBS teams and Super Bowl LI participants as models, which Orgeron and his staff meticulously studied, LSU players have been focused on those findings and teachings.
The early results have been positive, as in a plus-3 for the Tigers in their dominance of BYU and Chattanooga.
LSU, which finished even in the turnover margin a year ago to tie for 67th among the 128 FBS schools, has not given the ball away on offense or special teams so far.
Meanwhile, the defense has handed the ball to the offense three times — all on interceptions.
Orgeron’s team is one of 11 FBS schools (out of 129) to not give it to their opponents. LSU is one of eight teams to play in two games, while the other three have played one.
The goose egg on the offensive side isn’t something that’s lost on Orgeron, whose team’s last giveaway came at the end of the first half of its 29-9 demolition of Louisville in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Along with general manager Austin Thomas and special assistant Derek Ponamsky, Orgeron was determined to get the Tigers on the plus side this season by crunching the numbers and watching film in the spring.
“I’ve studied that myself ... that was my baby, and Derek helped me out with that,” Orgeron said. “We studied film. we studied teams. Austin helped me out. We had the film, and that was kind of our little study.”
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They watched Washington and Ohio State, who were both in the College Football Playoff semifinals, and Western Michigan, which played in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Washington and Western Michigan were each plus-18 in turnover margin; Ohio State was third at plus-15.
While those three were at plus-51, the thing that stood out to Orgeron was their combined 36-5 record at the end of the season. Conversely, of the 58 teams that were in the red in turnover margin, 16 had winning records.
“How are they getting them?” Orgeron said of what he got out of his study. "(You) look at the techniques they used on strip attempts, interceptions, pressures. Are they going four-man rush, five-man rush, full-out blitz? How are they getting their picks?”
That’s imperative, Orgeron said, because the LSU defense had just 17 takeaways last year.
On the other hand, ball security with his offense has been solid since Orgeron took over last September, with 10 giveaways in his 10 games counting this season.
“We haven’t done a good enough job creating turnovers,” he said. “We started gauging strip attempts every practice, and we have a goal of creating three turnovers per practice. Most of the time we’ve done that.”
But it’s not just limited to one day during the week.
“Coach ‘O’ is big on strip attempts,” said cornerback Greedy Williams, who has two of the Tigers’ three interceptions. “Every day, he wants us to get picks, going for strip attempts, anything to get the ball back.”
While they’ve been good at protecting the ball, quarterback Danny Etling said it’s understood that it’s crucial in every practice.
“It’s not just the quarterbacks or running backs,” he said. “It’s all 11 guys making sure that if you do your job, a guy can’t make a play on the ball and cause something bad to happen. So it’s something we take seriously.”
“Coach doesn’t play around about ball security,” senior wide receiver DJ Chark said. “Coaches take that very serious and as an offense, we take it very seriously. You try to possess the ball at the end of every play.”
Which is why offensive players return to the huddle in practice with the ball in their hands while a defender, or usually multiple defenders, try to claw the ball away long after the play has been whistled dead.
“The play is never over out there,” Chark said with a smile. “You can go score a touchdown and if you’re jogging back, they can hit it and pop the ball out and run with it. It gives them a never-quit mentality, and it gives us that security of holding it at all times.”
It also leads to some extreme competitiveness, both on and off the field.
“We have a challenge to get three turnovers a practice,” safety John Battle said. “If we get three, (defensive backs) coach (Corey) Raymond has to do 25 pushups in the locker room. If we don’t get them, we do the pushups.
“We’ve been doing a lot of pushups lately because the offense is doing well. We outplayed them a couple times, but they’ve done a good job this year.”
Danny Etling’s experience with cowbells is singular — a cowbell.
TURNOVERS = WINS
LSU is one of 11 FBS teams (out of 129) to not have turned the ball over this season. The others are Air Force, Alabama, Kansas State, Miami, Stanford, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Tulane, Vanderbilt and Virginia (Note: Air Force, Miami and Texas Tech have only played one game each).
Tigers coach Ed Orgeron and staff studied Washington over the offseason to learn how the Huskies led the nation in turnover margin a year ago.
2016 FBS Turnover Margins
San Diego State