Gophers’ turnover margin third in the Big Ten

Pre-practice ritual for players teaches them the proper technique for hanging onto the football.

by Brett Angel

For members of the Minnesota football coaching staff, it’s a chance to get in on the action while reinforcing an important lesson. For players, the lesson has been more beneficial than they could have ever thought.

During fall practice in August, coach Glen Mason and his staff decided the best way to cut down on costly turnovers each Saturday was to force more fumbles during the week.

“When I was growing up as a kid, one of the first lessons you learn playing ball with your friends is if you lose the ball, you don’t have a game,” wide receivers coach Richard Wilson said. “We’re starting from that premise that there’s no way we can be successful if we lose the football.”

At the beginning of every practice since, Minnesota running backs, tight ends and wide receivers are handed balls to tuck under their arms during stretching and warm-up exercises, while coaches and trainers randomly try to knock the balls loose.

The idea is the drill will teach players the proper technique of holding the ball high and tight and reduce turnovers on game days.

“It’s definitely benefited us, because you get that innate ability when you get the ball to tuck it away,” wide receiver Aaron Hosack said.

Minnesota has committed just six turnovers so far this season, compared to 10 takeaways, and currently sits third in the Big Ten with a +4 turnover margin. The Gophers have not committed a single turnover in either of their first two conference games against Penn State and Northwestern.

“I think you’d have to give most of the credit to (quarterback) Asad (Abdul-Khaliq),” Hosack said. “He’s out there making good decisions.”

Abdul-Khaliq has thrown nine touchdown passes against just two interceptions this season. The last time he was picked off was against Ohio on Sept. 13. Abdul-Khaliq also ranks first in the conference in pass efficiency – college football’s version of a quarterback rating.

But just as impressive has been the fact Minnesota has lost just two fumbles all year despite running the ball an average of 52 times per game.

While the cause behind fumbles is generally attributed to one of two things – poor technique or mental lapses – Mason evoked a third reason: superstition.

“I won’t talk about it,” Mason said when the subject of turnovers came up. “I’m not going to jinx myself.”

Whether it’s talked about this week or not, Mason and the Gophers realize keeping turnovers to a minimum is a top priority against quality opponents more likely to cash in on mistakes.

No. 20 Michigan, which will travel to the Metrodome for a Big Ten bout with Minnesota on Friday night, has turned the ball over 12 times this season and ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in turnover margin at -4.

And as Minnesota players know from Jared Ellerson’s 96-yard touchdown reception against Northwestern, one play can make all the difference between winning and losing.

That said, the 17th-ranked Gophers aren’t likely to get a break this week from coaches intent on emphasizing the significance of holding on to the football.

“In the games, the act of putting the ball away goes without saying, but when we’re out there on the practice field they don’t let up at all,” Hosack said. “Right when you let up, that’s usually the time when something stupid will happen.”

Ellerson honored

Ellerson was named Big Ten co-offensive player of the week for his performance Saturday against Northwestern.

Ellerson recorded his third 100-yard receiving game of the season, catching four passes for a career high 189 yards and two touchdowns.

His first scoring grab of 96 yards in the second quarter set a record for the longest pass play in school history and spurred Minnesota’s 42-17 comeback win against the Wildcats. Ellerson added an 82-yard touchdown catch in the first minute after halftime.

He now has 20 receptions for 512 yards and four touchdowns this season. Ellerson’s 25.6 yards-per-catch average is tops in the Big Ten.

The Minnesota sophomore shared this week’s honor with Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker, who went 32-of-40 for 351 yards and two touchdowns in the Spartans 31-3 victory over Indiana.

Poll position

For the first time in four years, the Big Ten has seven teams ranked in the top 25 of both The Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

Minnesota currently sits at No. 17 in The Associated Press poll and No. 13 in the coaches poll. The others from the Big Ten (with AP rankings) are Ohio State (3), Iowa (14), Purdue (18), Michigan (20), Michigan State (21) and Wisconsin (23).

No other conference in the country is represented by more than four teams in both polls.

Back to normal

Minnesota’s game against Michigan State will be played as originally scheduled at 11 a.m. Oct. 18.

The Big Ten had conditionally approved moving the game to Friday night, Oct. 17, if necessary, but the Minnesota Twins’ elimination from the Major League Baseball playoffs Sunday night removed the chance of any potential time conflict at the Metrodome.