The Virginia football team’s season-opening win was perfect. No, not in every way. But in one very important one.
At the end of the 28-10 victory against William & Mary, UVA’s stat line for turnovers read zero. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. So while there are targets for improvement, plenty of things to nitpick, and many more games to play, for one Saturday in September, the Hoos played a perfect turnover-free game. And they won.
”We look more mature, we look more confident, we look more consistent and more poised and I think just played a higher level of football in our opener from beginning to end than we did a year ago,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. ”We broke a streak for no turnovers. The last time that happened was 2013. That’s a lot of Virginia football games and that’s not to be taken lightly. We’ve emphasized that at a really high level.”
A lot of Virginia football games indeed. 42 to be exact. The Hoos held the longest streak of games with at least one turnover at the Football Bowl Subdivision level at 42 to be even more exact.
The last turnover-free game before Saturday came on Oct. 12, 2013 at Maryland in a 27-26 loss. Since then, 1,420 days passed between games without turnovers. 203 weeks. 46 months. More than 34,000 hours. That’s a really long time.
UVA, of course, also changed coaches during that time. Mendenhall took over for Mike London before the start of the 2016 season. Throughout the preparation and practices this offseason, the Cavalier coaches emphasized over and over and over again how important turnovers are to winning football games.
If you’ve got Herman Boone and Denzel Washington rattling around in your head, you’re not alone. Turnovers had been killing Virginia for years. The goal is to clean that up.
”We’re really big on ball security and though we had a couple of instances of where the ball was on the ground, we’re thankful that we recovered them,” said senior receiver Doni Dowling, who had never played in a game at Virginia without the team committing a turnover. ”They emphasize how important the ball is. You can’t do anything without the ball. The ball has the livelihood of everybody on the staff, everybody to the school, everything – that ball is important. It’s more than just an item. It’s bigger than that. We try to take care of it first and foremost.”
Against the Tribe on Saturday, the Hoos gave up zero on offense and grabbed one interception on defense for a +1 margin in the game. That statistic is viewed as a magic number of sorts.
A Football Study Hall article in 2013 stated that “if your team averages a turnover margin of +1, you can expect them to win around 8-9 games” and that “for every 0.5 in turnover margin that they are able to achieve, you can expect around 1.25 extra wins” based on statistical analysis. That article points out that turnovers alone aren’t a perfect model with so many other moving parts, but there still seems to be a strong correlation between winning the turnover battle and winning games.
A poster on Reddit.com ran some numbers for 2000-2014 that stated a similar case. FBS teams “with a minus turnover margin have a .27561 winning percentage, teams with a plus turnover margin have a .76039 winning percentage” according to the poster’s data. 28% vs. 76%. Football Scoop studied the 2008-2014 seasons “and found that among the 53 teams that forced an average turnover margin of greater than one per game, 52 of them posted winning seasons.”
Virginia, of course, fits the theory in a lot of ways. From 2008-2016, the Cavaliers posted only one season with a positive turnover margin and they’ve had only one winning season in that time frame (not in the same year, but more on that in a moment). The overall record for those seasons stood at 37-70, a winning percentage of 34.6%. Interestingly, UVA did buck the trend in two ways. In the lone winning season of 2011, the Hoos had a -7 turnover margin for the season. In the 5-7 close-call season back in 2014, they were +5.
Still, taking care of the football and winning the turnover margin seems to tie a lot of things together for winning and losing football teams over the long haul. It’s something the Cavaliers have near the top of their list for ways to win.
”It’s extremely significant,” senior receiver Andre Levrone said. ”Turnovers are how you lose football games. One of our pillars for our winning percentage is to have +1 in the turnover column by the end of every single game. That increases our chances highly to win the game. For us to be +1 today with that interception from Chris Peace, that was huge. For us as an offense to be able to protect the ball – there were a few close calls – but to be able to protect the ball is huge.”