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Inside the Numbers: Turnovers, Where Art Thou?

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Michigan has yet to force an opponent to cough up the football in 2014. "Inside the Numbers" reveals when the Wolverines' defense should expect to force its first turnover.

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This past week, many questions have been asked about Michigan football after it was shut out by rival Notre Dame in South Bend. They have been along the lines of "How was Michigan's hyped press coverage shredded so easily by Everett Golson and the Irish receivers?" or "Why did Devin Gardner implode in the second half?" or "Who will replace Brady Hoke as Michigan's head coach after the season?" I answered the first two questions here and here, and I have no interest in touching the third one with a 50-foot pole.

But there is one question that has been on my mind that no one seems to be asking:

Where did all of the turnovers go?

Michigan has participated in two games this season, and its defense has yet to force an opponent to turn over the football. Not once has a Wolverine defender laid a jarring hit on an opposing quarterback or running back that knocked the ball loose. Not once has a Wolverine defender undercut a route run by an opposing receiver and intercepted the football. Not once has a Wolverine defender been in a position to pick off an errant pass.

Not once.

The closest Michigan has been to recording a takeaway was a bouncing punt that Irish return man Cody Riggs allowed to squirm between his legs early in the second quarter. As it happened, Michigan gunner Jehu Chesson barreled into Riggs, providing any other Wolverine in the area an opportunity to pounce on the football. But, due to Michigan's traditional punt formation, every other Wolverine was more than 10 yards away.

This is not what Hoke and Greg Mattison promised. Throughout the offseason, the message delivered to the public was that this year's Michigan defense would be more aggressive and ruthless than any prior one during their tenure. This year's defense was supposed to get after it and make plays. Game-changing ones. This implied turnovers, and, while the season is still young, they are nowhere to be had.

The irony is that Michigan had no issues forcing turnovers before this purported shift to an aggressive defensive philosophy. In their first three seasons under Hoke and Mattison, the Wolverines' defense tallied 73 takeaways, which was tied with Michigan State for the most in the Big Ten. Among the 39 games played in those three seasons, there were only three in which Michigan's defense did not force a single turnover -- 2011 Iowa, 2012 Air Force, and 2012 Iowa. In fact, entering the 2014 season, Michigan's defense had forced at least one turnover in 15 consecutive contests. It was the longest active such streak among any Big Ten team.

And, now, for the first time since the days when GERG, er, I mean, Greg Robinson roamed the sidelines with his stuffed beaver, Michigan has failed to record a single takeaway in two straight games. For context, there are only six other teams in the nation that have played two games this season and been unable to produce a turnover -- Air Force, Duke, Iowa State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Ohio, and Texas Tech. What luck for the Wolverines.

And I do mean luck. At least to an extent. I have no problem admitting that it takes more than skill for a defense to accumulate takeaways. For example, once a football is fumbled to the ground, skill has little to no weight in determining whether the offense or defense will recover it. It does not matter how skilled a player may be at scooping up a fumble if that football bounces in the other direction or lands next to a pile of players on the opposing team. That is just how it works sometimes.

But there is skill involved in forcing turnovers. It is a skill for a defensive lineman to know how to chop at the football when he nears the quarterback on a pass rush or to rake out the football when he tackles a running back. It is a skill for a linebacker to place his helmet on the football when he delivers a big hit. It is a skill for a cornerback to break out of his backpedal properly in order to jump a route. And it is a skill for a safety to read the eyes of the quarterback when the quarterback surveys the field for an open receiver.

However, Michigan has yet to exhibit that they possess these skills. The pass rush has been decent but mostly been mitigated by the opponent's tactic to utilize quick drops and short routes. The linebackers, still adjusting to their new roles in the 4-3 Over, especially Jake Ryan at MIKE, have been too hesitant when diagnosing an opponent's play, which hinders their ability to lay the boom on a running back. Some of the cornerbacks have not been able to make plays on passes thrown in their direction due to their struggles with the new press coverage scheme. And the safeties have had little opportunity to make plays over the top as the opponent's receivers get open underneath time and time again. This is not to say that Michigan's defense is subpar. It definitely is not. But it is not doing the little things well that lead to forced turnovers.

So when will this change? When will Michigan start doing these little things and put itself in a position to record that first takeaway this season? Well, I cannot make any guarantees because predicting a team's turnover margin, and therefore the number of takeaways a team tallies, is a total crapshoot.

But, if I had to guess, it should happen this Saturday when the Wolverines host the Miami RedHawks. Why? First, based on recent history, it is quite rare for a defense to go three consecutive contests without forcing a single turnover. In the previous five seasons, a Big Ten school accomplished this "feat" only six times. Two of these instances can be attributed to Robinson, who coordinated the two worst defenses in Michigan history. I just cannot see a Greg Mattison-coached defense joining that company.

And, second, the Miami RedHawks likely will gift-wrap a turnover for Michigan. In their first two games this season, the RedHawks have turned over the football an astonishing seven times, including six in last week's lost to middle-of-the-pack FCS program Eastern Kentucky. Only three FBS programs in the nation can claim to have given up the football more often than Miami (OH): Houston, Vanderbilt, and SMU. If there was ever an opponent to help a Michigan defense earn that first turnover forced, it is this one.

So, this Saturday, expect Michigan's defense to jump on top of a loose football or to undercut a lazy route for an interception. It would be a surprise if it does not happen. But, if it does not and Michigan once again is unable to generate a takeaway for the third straight game, I am sure I no longer will be the only one asking:

Where did all of the turnovers go?