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October 9, 2009TUSCALOOSA _ In the University of Alabama football building they keep track of a lot more than just points.
They count everything from blocking grades to first downs, but one key statistic both the offensive and defensive coaches pay close attention to is turnovers.
"We have a turnover drill each week at practice, and we keep track of how many turnovers we get in practice," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said "We thrive on it, because we know it can be a difference-maker in games."
Last Saturday at Kentucky was a perfect example. While the offense didn't lose the ball once, the defense created four turnovers, three essentially on consecutive possessions that translated into 17 points. Alabama was only ahead 14-6 before sophomore linebacker Courtney Upshaw scored a 45-yard touchdown off a ball knocked loose by junior linebacker Rolando McClain, but up 31-6 following senior kicker Leigh Tiffin's 36-yard field goal shortly after McClain's tipped ball to senior linebacker Eryk Anders.
"The difference in that and the difference that made in the game is probably really significant," Coach Nick Saban said. "I think we've done an outstanding job of taking care of the ball and I think that's really important to play winning football and we certainly need to continue to do that, especially when we are playing on the road."
The coach takes it even further with players.
"He's never satisfied, ever," McClain said. "We always feel that we can do better. That's the motto we've taken.
"In our mind we should have got six, we should have got eight. We just have to get better."
Although there's no way to qualify just how much turnovers can translate into wins, consider that of the eight SEC teams with a positive turnover ratio this season only Vanderbilt (plus-seven) has a losing record at 2-3.
The two other teams with losing records are minus-10 in turnovers, while Georgia is a statistical aberration. The Bulldogs (3-2) have lost 13, nearly all in their own territory with seven eventually resulting in touchdowns, while gaining only four for a horrendous minus-nine ratio.
In comparison, Alabama has lost just three turnovers this season. That leads the SEC and tied for the fewest in the nation.
"Knock on wood," said junior quarterback Greg McElroy, who has had just one pass intercepted, when he was being pressured by Virginia Tech in the second quarter during his 0-for-9 run.
That adds up to no pickoffs in 107 attempts, already the fourth-longest string in Alabama history behind Brodie Croyle (190), Jay Barker (155) and Freddie Kitchens (135). Yet at the same time the offense has remained explosive with five different players having receptions of 30-plus yards and eight making catches of 20-plus yards (with tight end Preston Dial and running back Terry Grant just missing with 19- and 18-yard gains, respectively).
"It's difficult at times because you want to make that long play so badly, and to just put it in the hands of No. 22, 5 or 3, one of those guys on a checkdown, but it does help our offense and keeps the chains moving," McElroy said. "As for as protecting the ball, it's something I've always wanted to make a priority."
On the ground, Alabama has lost two of seven fumbles. Senior running back Roy Upchurch coughed up one on a long run early in the third quarter against Virginia Tech, and McElroy lost the ball after being blindsided on the first snap against North Texas.
During his 19-game collegiate career sophomore running back Mark Ingram has had just one fumble in 247 touches (226 carries and 21 catches), which Alabama recovered at LSU last season. Meanwhile, he's accumulated 1,215 rushing yards with 18 rushing touchdowns to go with 204 receiving yards and three more scores.
"As a running back, you have to take pride in running with the football," Ingram said. "You can't do anything with the football, you have to take care of it.
"I expect that from myself."
But that doesn't mean his defensive teammates don't go after the ball during practice, and last week it was a particular point of emphasis. Prior to playing the Wildcats, the Tide was averaging just one turnover created per game, which was sharply down from last year's 25 over 14 games (1.78 average).
Obviously, it paid off.
"When we go against a team and we see individuals who don't have good ball security, we pinpoint that and try and take advantage of it during the play," said senior cornerback Javier Arenas, who has yet to notch his first pickoff of the season but has also had few balls thrown his direction.
"There aren't too many skill position guys who carry the ball tight to their body because it's tough to do. So all ball-skill position guys are vulnerable at times."