EAST LANSING, Mich. – Darqueze Dennard intercepted 10 passes while playing cornerback for Michigan State during his four seasons in East Lansing. He was good enough to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back as a senior in 2013 and then be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft by Cincinnati the following spring.
Ask Dennard to name a favorite memory of a turnover with the Spartans and he goes through his experiences – “There are a lot of turnovers I remember,” he says as he begins recalling a list that includes a pair by Shilique Calhoun, another by Jairus Jones and then a Max Bullough sack/forced fumble against Purdue in 2013 that Denicos Allen picked up and returned for a touchdown. Then he settles on one unforgettable play.
“You know, Isaiah Lewis with the interception to seal the deal against those guys down the road.”
You can hear Dennard’s smile across the phone as he remembers aloud the 39-yard interception return for a touchdown with 4:31 left in the game by Lewis in 2011 that closed the door on a 28-14 Michigan State win over Michigan at Spartan Stadium.
Winning the turnover battle is second nature to Michigan State since Mark Dantonio took over the program in 2007. The Spartans are plus-59 in the takeaway-giveaway categories under Dantonio as they prepare for their Big Ten opener against Wisconsin on Saturday (12:00 p.m. EST, BTN) but what they’ve done the last four seasons proves that while you can never predict how the ball will bounce, you sure can practice to make it bounce your way.
No team in the Big Ten over the last four seasons has been better at taking away the ball and keeping it from other teams than the Spartans. They are plus-47 in turnover margin since the start of 2013 and have been ranked in the top 10 nationally in that category each of the last three seasons. Michigan State is the only team in the NCAA Division I FBS that can say that truthfully.
No single stat explains Michigan State’s 38-5 record since 2013 as well as the turnover margin.
“You just don’t know when the turnovers are going to come. You got to keep trying to get them. You got to coach them. You’ve got to talk about it, practice the ways of getting them. Everybody in America does that,” said Dantonio. “At the end of the day, if you’re plus-one in turnover margin at the end of the year, you probably won a lot of football games. If you really look at our record, really comb through it, you’ll see that when we’re plus-two or plus-one, we’ve won the game the majority of the time. When we’re minus-two, the significance of that drops 50/50 or less.”
The Spartans were plus-2 at Notre Dame last Saturday. They trailed 7-0 in the second quarter when Collin Caflisch recovered a punt that deflected off an Irish blocker downfield. One play later, quarterback Tyler O’Connor and wide receiver Donnie Corley connected on a 38-yard touchdown pass, which was followed by a 2-point conversion. Just like that, Michigan State was leading 8-7. A later interception by linebacker Jon Reschke was converted into a 9-yard touchdown run by L.J. Scott.
Those 15 points proved vital in the 36-28 win.
“It’s something we work on every day,” said Reschke. “In camp we actually have a thing where if we don’t get five turnovers as a defense we have to do something like 80 down-ups. We do a ton of down-ups after a long camp practice. It’s something we really work on as a defense and it pays off in games.”
Cornerback Vayante Copeland said there are specific drills players go through each day, no matter the defensive position, to work on stripping the ball from a runner and picking up loose balls from the ground or out of the air when tipped.
It’s something Dennard said was a staple of practice while he was with the Spartans.
“I think Coach D (Dantonio) and Coach B (defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett), and especially Coach Duz (former DC Pat Narduzzi) when I was there, I think they did a great job of before practice starts we do something we call a turnover circuit,” said Dennard. “I think the coaches did a good job of really emphasizing it throughout the whole day of practice. It also helped that the offense takes care of the ball. We also have some very good guys who are athletic and can do a lot of things for Michigan State. I think we recruit talented guys that can do a lot of things and that can play multiple positions. They’re athletic enough to make a lot of plays.”
Michigan State hasn’t had more than 15 turnovers in any of the last three seasons. O’Connor has thrown two interceptions this season, including one at Notre Dame that cost the Spartans at least a shot at a field goal. O’Connor threw for tight end Josiah Price near the end zone on a third-and-10 play from the Notre Dame 22-yard line. The ball was tipped by one defender and picked off by another in heavy coverage.
“It’s something we’ve talked about offensively. We’ve been very good at taking care of the football. And Tyler knows,” said quarterbacks coach Brad Salem. “He’s a guy that’s been around and he understands it was a forced throw in the red zone but those are decisions – especially in that part of the field – he will continue to grow at.”
O’Connor completed 12 of his final 17 pass attempts in the game for 173 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“We talked about it when we watched (film) Sunday,” said Salem. “He has the ability to escape, and so you’re inside the red zone, it’s a field goal, it’s third-and-10, you may not get the first (down) but can you gain five and create a closer field goal?”
Just as the defense suffers punishment if it doesn’t get enough turnovers in practice, if the offense loses a ball, it is held accountable. Salem said every offensive skill meeting room has a daily chart of how that position group handled ball security. It is scrutinized closely.
“Our defense helps us out a lot at that because in practice they practice stripping the ball,” said senior wide receiver Monty Madaris. “Even when the whistle is blown, we as an offense, if someone strips the ball from you we call that a fumble. If you fumble and create a turnover that way, you still have to pay for it the next practice.
“It doesn’t matter. You always hold onto the ball. Our coaches always preach to us that ball security is job security, yours and mine.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo