In search of turnovers

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The Bearcats have been among the worst teams in college football in creating turnovers, but they're intently focused on reversing the concerning trend.


CINCINNATI -- Drew Frey stepped in front of the first pass of the night from B.J. Daniels on Friday. The USF quarterback with the tendency to make the dangerous throw did just that. The ball fell right into the hands of the Bearcats sophomore.


He couldn't hold on.


At the time, it felt like what would be the first of many turnover opportunities for the Bearcats on Friday. Unfortunately for them, it was essentially their last.


Such has been the 2010 season for the Bearcats defense. A bad bounce here, a dropped interception there and what was a playmaking dry spell morphed into a crop-killing drought.


In the last four games, UC created one turnover. J.K. Schaffer's acrobatic interception against Oklahoma's Landry Jones aside, the Bearcats own nary an interception or fumble recovery.


From Clifton to Syracuse, it's no secret the Bearcats have a problem and desperately need to solve it.


"Yes, it's frustrating," cornerback Reuben Johnson said. "Yes, it's in the back of our heads. And yes we have to make plays. It's a must."


Only Kansas (4) created fewer turnovers than Cincinnati (5) among FBS schools.


The Bearcats' two interceptions ranks 114th of 120.


Seven FBS teams returned more interceptions for touchdowns than the Bearcats have total picks. 


The numbers paint an ugly picture. But the statistics are ones the team focused almost all its energy on erasing - starting Saturday against Syracuse.    


"Great defenses create turnovers," Johnson said. "Point blank. There is nothing to talk about. There is no conversation about it. You look at any great defense in college football, they are great because they create turnovers."


Johnson doesn't lie. Of the top 10 teams in the country in creating turnovers, two are undefeated (Oregon, Michigan St.) and four are ranked in the AP Top 25 (Ohio State, Miami).


Extra drills on stripping the ball and catching it at the highest point filled practices this week at Nippert Stadium. And the Bearcats talk continuously about finding a way to reverse this negative trend.


All that said, I mean, you'd almost HAVE to fall into a few more turnovers by plain luck, right? Not necessarily.


How unlucky has UC been? It ranks 116th in the FBS in fumble recovery percentage. Of 14 balls opponents put on the ground, the Bearcats ended up with it only three times.


For DL Dan Giordano, luck plays a partial role, but personal responsibility looms more relevant.


"We have definitely had a couple missed opportunities where we should have come down with it a couple times, people not pursuing," he said. "This week we have been stressing more. We are going to change this around."


As to how the Bearcats found themselves in this position, blame is tough to place. Fielding the youngest defense in the BCS - with eight sophomores and three juniors - likely plays a role. Making plays becomes as much a learned art form as perfecting a fire zone blitz or inside stunt.


"A lot of it is your overall development of your football program," Butch Jones said. "A lot of times when you play eight sophomores they are not as developed in your strength and conditioning standpoint. It's understanding how to secure the tackle and rip the ball. Watching the game from Friday night we were tugging at the ball and trying to get it out. We just couldn't' get it out. It's overall awareness."


Johnson and the secondary are all too aware of their interception skid. In fact, no starting cornerback or safety owns a pick this year. LB Schaffer came up with one against Oklahoma and reserve nickel back Pat Lambert picked off a pass in the opener at Fresno State.


While pointing fingers at the secondary would be easy, Jones insists the blame should spread to all 11 players on the field, not the four in the defensive backfield.


"So much of creating turnovers and interceptions not just in the back end," he said. "It is generating a pass rush, getting to the quarterback, tipping the ball. It's our linebackers and their pass coverage. Obviously, the secondary is always singled out because that is what everyone sees. But when you are a great defensive unit, which we are striving to be, it's all 11 guys that have a hand in a turnover."


But tell that to Johnson. He made the ESPN highlights on Friday night against USF because he was thinking about creating one of those elusive turnovers. Unfortunately, only the No. 5 on his back chasing Dontavia Bogan for 64 yards could be seen.


"When a defensive back gets beat in front of 30,000 people, everyone is going to see it," Johnson said. "When I got beat on the deep shot, my mindset was make a big play when they throw the hitch route. Great players don't get caught into that mess, great players play the defense that is called."


On Saturday, the Bearcats hope the defenses called can finally land the turnovers to end this unfortunate streak.


"It's going to happen," Johnson said. "We got to keep our relentless attitude and the ball is going to bounce our way."


It almost has to, right?

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