October 29, 2013 10:44:24 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen would like to be perfect when it comes to turnovers
But while the Bulldogs haven't lived up to that standard, he just may have to accept the fact they are one of the nation's elite.
MSU (4-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) begins preparations for No. 14 South Carolina (6-2, 4-2) as one of the most consistent teams in the country when it comes to turnovers. MSU leads the league and is second in the nation with six turnovers. It's a pleasant statistic for a offense filled with youthful starters and backups who have been forced into action due to injuries.
"Our goal is zero, which we haven't hit many times this year," Mullen said. "If there is a category you want to lead in, I do like that. It shows we take care of the football."
Mullen said Sunday and Monday that six turnovers are still too many. However, MSU 's turnovers have decreased each of the first four years under Mullen (30, 21, 20, 18). The team is on pace for just 10 this season.
"I've said this before, but we get in that meeting room and we go over every little things in terms of evaluating first downs, third downs and our kids pretty much know what's going to come out of that in the game plan," MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. "Now here's the cool part: None of that matters a lick if you don't take care of the most important thing, and that is that football in your hand."
Mullen believes protecting the football is a skill that can be taught and harnessed in practice. He and his coaches preach about taking ownership of the football in meeting rooms, film sessions, and at practice to help make it a muscle memory sensory activity.
"Our players want the ball and know at the same time if you don't take care of the ball you don't get to play a whole lot," Mullen said Monday in his media conference at the Seal Family Football Complex, "so they're pretty conscious about holding on to the ball."
On Saturday, MSU will face a quarterback -- senior Connor Shaw -- who has 14 touchdowns and one interception. Despite Shaw's statistics and his edge in experience against third-year sophomore Dak Prescott, MSU still has a significantly better turnover margin than the Gamecocks.
"It's a big factor, but it's a factor that ties in with things like third-down conversions that ties in with red-zone offense and getting touchdowns when we're down there," Mullen said. "None of that can happen if you don't have the football because you're handing it to the other team."
Prescott is tied for 28th in the country with three interceptions. Prescott, who is in his first season getting to run the complete playbook, has grown to understand the importance of risk-and-reward plays.
"All our quarterbacks understand they have to look at it like their job is to take care of the football," Mullen said. "We don't have a goal that says don't punt, (but) we do have a goal that says don't turn the ball over. I don't like punting, but I hate turning the ball over. There's a big difference between the two. I think our guys understand that."
Prescott, who has started five games, said he sometimes has to remind himself that a punt sometimes isn't a bad thing.
"You're not going be able to score at the end of every drive," Prescott said. "You'd like to, don't get me wrong, but sometimes that's not what makes a drive successful. Sometimes it's about flipping the field position and giving your defense something to work with after you pin them deep with a punt. If you're turning over the football, neither of those things happened."
Last season, MSU was tied with LSU for the league lead in turnover margin (plus-16). In Mullen's worst season in Starkville (his first in 2009), the Bulldogs were minus-5 in turnover margin as they learned Mullen's system and had numerous freshmen in key roles.
"We count missed assignments and track how they go down after pretty much every game," Koenning said. "Why is that important with turnovers? Turnovers happen because normally more than one person didn't do their job and the result is bad. It can happen, but it's funny how it's normally not 10 guys doing something perfect but one guy just dropping the ball."
In its four victories, MSU has turned over the football just twice and is plus-4 in turnover margin. Mullen said he has charted turnover margin and has found valuing the football often leads to victories.
"There's not one statistic in the game of football that leads to wins," Mullen said. "However, of those bunch of things combined, we've figured out that if you look at turnover margin, 90 percent of the time teams that win that stat are going to win the football game."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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