If one thing defined Maryland's descent into the abyss of an awful 2009 was its unflinching ability to make life incredibly difficult for itself in the early going.
There were all sorts of problems, such as a shaky offensive line and a limited pass rush in the first month of the season. But nothing stood out like turnovers --- just scads of them, each almost invariably leading to points for an opponent.
Things have changed in 2010, for reasons worth dissecting in a moment. But first, it's worth observing just how different things are. Maryland is off to its best start vis-a-vis turnover margin since 2001 --- by more than one a game over the first four contests of the season.
MARYLAND TURNOVER MARGIN THROUGH FOUR GAMES & FULL SEASON, 2001-2010
So, what changed?
""When we go in winter workouts, we're not allowed to have a ball --- it's illegal," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I rolled up towels. We were working on holding onto the football since February. First thing we do every day. I do it on Thursdays. I do it every day. We have a turnover circuit and we have a ball-security circuit. If I see them getting lax, I'm on the coaches and I'm on them."
Given those numbers (one positive turnover margin season in six years), most would assume someone would have identified the problem long ago. And naturally, they did.
Kevin Lempa's arrival in 2007 was hailed as a move that made defensive backs more aggressive (well, as aggressive as they could hope to be under old defensive coordinator Chris Cosh). Same thing for defensive coordinator Don Brown's arrival last year.
The ball security drills (always a giggle-worthy phrase to type) aren't new either, though it's impossible to know if those efforts were redoubled this year since all of practice is closed to media types.
The funny thing is --- and Friedgen pointed this out more than any writers did --- Maryland actually did a turnabout on turnovers late last season. Sure, the Terps lost their last five games, but had a +7 takeaway margin in that span and didn't lose the turnover battle once.
Put another way: Maryland is +13 in its last nine games, with 21 forced turnovers against only eight giveaways.
So what's really different. Here are a few clues:
1. Interceptions are way down. The Terps have thrown three interceptions in their last eight games, a span covering 206 pass attempts. Chris Turner wasn't an interception machine, and he surely had some excuse given his protection last year. But he threw nine interceptions in the Terps' first eight games of 2009, and you don't need to be good at math to know that's not as good as Maryland's record in the eight contests since.
So some credit goes to better protection, some goes to a more credible running game that has averted some blatant passing situations and some of it goes to the decision-making of the quarterbacks.
2. Defensive interceptions are way up. Again, in last year's first eight games, Maryland had four interceptions. The Terps have 11 in the eight games since. Credit for that probably can go to greater comfort in Brown's scheme, as well as linebackers pulling off some acrobatic grabs rather than dropping picks.
3. Better weather. Maryland lost five of its 14 fumbles in monsoon games of varying degrees last season (Rutgers, Virginia, Duke). The Terps have totaled just three lost fumbles in the last eight games which means ...
4. Better ball security is indeed a factor. This warrants a mention, too. Know who had those three fumbles since the start of November 2009? Adrian Cannon, Danny O'Brien and Ronnie Tyler.
Davin Meggett has gone 82 straight carries without a lost fumble, dating back to last October's loss to Virginia. Da'Rel Scott has gone 70 straight carries without a lost fumble, the last come in a September 2009 loss to Rutgers. Overall, Terp tailbacks haven't committed a fumble in 194 carries (dating back to Gary Douglas' miscue against Virginia last year).
The question that remains is the sustainability of it all. Turnovers are a decidedly fickle entity --- especially fumbles, regardless of how many ball security drills a team runs.
Still, Maryland has a 31-0 edge over its opponents in points off turnovers this season --- not to mention a reverse of its 1-3 record from this time a year ago.
"There's an amazing correlation between turnover ratio and winning football games," Friedgen said.
Keeping up both, then, is Friedgen's priority with conference play on his doorstep.