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The WSU defense has made a living on forcing fumbles this year, and Oregon just might oblige the Cougs this weekend.

Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

It would take quite the feat for a 5-8 Big Sky team to make national headlines. Back in 2002 Sacramento State found their way into the NY Times after players were photographed on the sidelines of their 31-24 loss to Montana dousing each other with PAM cooking spray to make their jerseys slippery in a desperate attempt to become more difficult to tackle.

At the current rate Washington State’s defense is forcing fumbles, it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to conclude they were up to something similar, somehow finding a way to grease the ol’ pigskin before every snap as a new defensive tactic. Thankfully, I don’t foresee any cooking spray induced scandals ahead of us as it seems like Jake Dickert’s emphasis on stripping the ball is truly taking hold.

Turnovers in football are notoriously difficult to predict or to rely on as a strategy. From David Hale’s great 2018 article on turnover luck:

“The analytics say that turnovers are way, way more random than coaches or fans think,” said Ed Feng, the curator of The Power Rank analytics service who has a Ph.D. in applied math from Stanford. “It’s not a perfect way to say there’s no skill. It’s just that turnovers are a really subtle thing, and randomness plays a much bigger role than people want to think.”

However, after that quote, he mentions that every dataset has its outliers, and WSU is one of those this season.

Virtual Water Cooler Talking Points for WSU vs. Oregon

  • WSU leads the nation in opponent fumbles at 20
  • It’s not just counting stat magic — WSU forces fumbles more often than any team in the country
  • Oregon’s offense is the 3rd-most fumble-prone team in the Pac-12
  • Oregon fumbled 13 times in 7 games in 2020

The below chart looks at fumble rate and total fumbles for both offense and defense. Fumble rate is simply taking the number of fumbles forced by a defense or given up by an offense divided by number of plays. The thing that most impresses me about the frequency in which the Cougar’s force fumbles is that it isn’t confined to a singular position group. Derrick Langford Jr. leads the way with 3 forced fumbles, Armani Marsh, Justus Rogers and Daniel Isom all have 2 forced fumbles on the year and we’ll have to wait till Saturday to see if Amir Crowder, Ron Stone Jr. or Willie Taylor III are the first defensive lineman to join that trio at 2 forced fumbles on the season.

The reason I think WSU’s tendency to get the other team to put the ball on the ground could be a huge factor Saturday vs Oregon is that the Ducks are currently 10th in the Pac-12 in fumble rate on offense. They’re currently trending in the wrong direction, too: Over the last 3 games, they’re fumbling 1.7 times a game — .5 above their 2021 season avg of 1.2 fumbles a game.

Please football gods, let Oregon’s pre game meal be cooked by Paula Deen.

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Now you might be thinking, “hold on a second, Oregon has only lost 4 fumbles all season!” to which I would say that also bodes well for WSU. A football is a weird shape, it bounces all over the place in directions that you can’t predict. When you look at all of the fumbles over an entire season across college football, it’s a roughly 50-50 proposition every year as to if the offense or defense will recover a fumble. Oregon’s offense recovering 60% of their fumbles could come tumbling down Saturday.

(Just don’t look at the WSU defense recovery percentage, OK?)

Oregon is going to pound the ball in Eugene Saturday. When Dickert was at Wyoming, he had the smallest defensive line in the Mountain West, but the second best defense in the conference per SP+ and the second best stuff rate (% of running plays that result in no gain or a loss). He did it with athletic, active defenders who were opportunistic in trying to create turnovers. You shouldn’t bet on turnovers to decide a game, but if the Cougs can pull the ball out of some Duck hands on Saturday, WSU just might punch its bowl ticket.

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