Washington's defense is tied for first nationally with 14 forced fumbles, but their fumble luck seems to have run out. Overall, the Huskies have a minus-4 turnover margin.
The football has always been a funny thing, hasn’t it? The ball has its shape — a prolate spheroid — because that was the natural shape of the inflated pig bladder used to make the first football in the 19th century.
The standard dimensions of an NCAA ball these days: 11 inches long, seven inches wide and 21-inch circumference. Dropped to the ground, it can do the darndest things. Corralling a bouncing football can be akin to catching a common fly with one’s barehand.
“The football bounces where it’s going to bounce. There’s really nothing you can do about it,” Washington senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said. “It’s not a soccer ball. It’s not going to roll to you.”
This is all true, and this is relevant for Burr-Kirven and the Huskies because, well, because they have become all too familiar with the unpredictable physics of a football on turf.
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Washington’s defense has forced 14 fumbles this season, tied for the most in college football. And Burr-Kirven and fellow senior linebacker Tevis Bartlett are among the national leaders with three forced fumbles each.
But those 14 fumbles have turned into just six fumble recoveries, part of the reason why Washington has a minus-4 turnover margin this season. (To be fair: The Huskies’ offense has turned the ball over 13 times this season, already two more turnovers than it had in 13 games in 2017.)
Two years ago, the Huskies prided themselves on their ability to consistently create turnovers. And they did it better than anyone — their 33 turnovers (2.45 per game) led the nation in 2016, a key reason for their breakthrough run to the College Football Playoff.
This year? The Huskies have just nine turnovers in nine games, which ranks 99th in the FBS.
(To answer the question posed in the above headline: No, Washington is not the unluckiest team in college football — among Pac-12 teams, California, in fact, has the lowest fumble-recovery rate, with two recoveries on seven forced fumbles — but based on the sheer volume of opponents’ fumbles it at least feels like the Huskies are snake-bitten.)
“There’s definitely some luck involved,” Burr-Kirven said. “We’ve gotten so many fumbles out all year long, and then all of a sudden we’re not getting them. So it’s tough. When it comes out, it feels like it should definitely be ours, so it is frustrating.”
So how do the Huskies fix what, uh, isn’t really broken?
“The recipe for getting turnovers is to play tough, physical football, which we’ve done every single game. We’ve forced a fumble every single game,” said Jimmy Lake, the Huskies’ co-defensive coordinator. “It’s just a matter of us getting on the football. Everybody knows the ball bounces funny ways. For whatever reason, we’ve forced them; we haven’t gotten on them. …
“We’ve got to continue playing tough, physical football. We can’t change that recipe. We can’t say, ‘Let’s not play tough and physical anymore; maybe (then) the ball will bounce our way.’ We’ve just got to continue to do what we’re doing.”
There could be more opportunities for the Huskies (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) this Saturday when Stanford (5-3, 3-2) comes to Husky Stadium for a 6 p.m. kickoff on the Pac-12 Networks.
The Huskies have just three interceptions this season — one each by Jordan Miller, Taylor Rapp and Burr-Kirven — as few teams have dared challenge UW’s secondary, which has given up the fewest touchdown passes (five), with the fewest yards allowed per pass attempt (5.4) and the lowest passer rating allowed (112.5).
Stanford has the personnel to challenge that Huskies deep down the field, with junior QB K.J. Costello (17 touchdowns, six interceptions) throwing to a massive receiving corps featuring the 6-foot-3 JJ Arcega-Whiteside (47 catches, 743 yards, 11 TD); the 6-2 Trenton Irwin; the 6-5 tight end Kaden Smith; and the 6-7 tight end Colby Parkinson.
“We are not getting a lot of footballs downfield. If you’re really watching our games closely, it’s all dink and dunk (passing),” Lake said. “This week, these guys do push the ball down the field and we are expecting them to challenge our guys. We’ve got to go up and make plays on the football.”
The good news, Lake said, is he is optimistic Miller, a senior starting cornerback, can return from a leg injury. In the loss at Stanford last year, the Huskies were without the 6-1 Miller and the 5-11 Byron Murphy, both injured at the time.
Murphy on Monday was named, along with Burr-Kirven, as a semifinalist Bednarik Award, presented to college football’s top defensive player. Murphy ranks in the top 10 nationally with 11 pass breakups, but he is still looking for his first interception of the season.
“It’s our job to score or get the ball back. As a whole defense, we’ve just got to keep creating turnovers,” Murphy said, “and actually make the play.”