LAWRENCE — Only two teams last year held the unfortunate honor of sporting a worse turnover margin than Kansas.
Two games into this new season, no one in the country can claim a better turnover margin than the Jayhawks.
KU has made the nation’s biggest turnaround in arguably the sport’s most important statistic, sitting at an FBS-leading plus-six turnover margin through two nonconference contests. The Jayhawks (1-1) have recorded seven takeaways — four interceptions and three fumble recoveries — against only one lost fumble, a jarring improvement from the minus-17 turnover margin that last season ranked 127th — the third-worst mark nationally.
“We’re only going to be as good as our next, but the turnover margin is critical,” KU coach David Beaty said Tuesday. “At this time last year, you know, we simply weren’t in this position.”
Addressing last year’s turnover woes became a “huge emphasis,” Beaty said, as soon as the coaching staff left the field following last season’s finale against Oklahoma State. And while the team this season is working on only a two-game sample size, the fourth-year coach believes he’s seen enough on both offense and defense to believe the principles stressed in the offseason are paying off.
“Some of the things that we focused on that we’ve implemented, it’s good to see the development starting to work, and it’s starting to become contagious with those players,” Beaty said. “We’re still working on trying to be a smarter team. We still have a long way to go there. That’s not just the players — that’s the coaches as well.”
Some of the statistics behind the turnaround are staggering.
The KU defense created just nine turnovers in 2017 with only four coming off interceptions. In Saturday’s 31-7 victory at Central Michigan, the Jayhawks matched that number of picks in one afternoon, with senior cornerback Shak Taylor icing the victory and the Jayhawks’ first road victory since 2009 on a fourth-quarter pick-six.
One of Saturday’s interceptors, senior linebacker Joe Dineen, said a lot of film study and route recognition went into KU’s successful showing against the Chippewas. A little luck also plays a role in the process, though Dineen wasn’t certain chance is a bigger factor than skill and scheme.
“It’s probably 50-50, honestly,” Dineen said. “The quarterback has got to put one up there for you to grab, but then you have to be in the right spot. It’s a little bit of both.”
KU quarterback Peyton Bender hasn’t given opposing defenders that same luxury.
One season after throwing 10 of the team’s 17 interceptions, Bender hasn’t tossed a pick through 61 pass attempts and hasn’t really come close to doing so. The senior couldn’t identify any specific change that has led to his increased ball security outside of simply seeing the payoff to long offseason film sessions among the quarterbacks.
“I think that’s definitely translated into the season, just understanding what the defense is trying to do, who’s the extra run fitter, how does that affect the passing game,” Bender said. “We’ve just emphasized taking the easy throw, trying to find where the hole in the defense is and just taking advantage of that area.”
A more reserved approach from offensive coordinator Doug Meacham has paid off, too.
“We were a little bit more conservative on the play-calling aspect of the game Saturday, didn’t take too many shots down the field, which helped,” Bender said. “... We’re going to continue to keep the ball safe and keep the turnover margin on our side.”
Beaty said some of Bender’s best plays against Central Michigan were the ones he didn’t make. Bender finished 17 for 26 for 130 yards and a touchdown in the victory — not the sexiest stat line, of course, but a reflection of a performance that saw the quarterback chuck the ball out of bounds when nothing developed and throw passes only receivers could haul in.
“That's real growth for him, because he's a guy, he can keep it alive, keeps his eyes down the field better than anybody I've ever had,” Beaty said. “But sometimes it can be counterproductive.
“It's always going to start right there at the top with Doug and him emphasizing the right things, managing the game, not putting the ball in jeopardy and knowing that you can play this game and do a lot of damage to your opponent by putting the ball in play and not necessarily always trying to make it look like a big play all the time.”
Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen also deserves credit, Beaty said, for making his defenders obsessed with securing takeaways at practices.
“There's guys ripping and roaring at that ball all day every day,” Beaty said. “When there's a dropped ball, we're scooping it like it's a fumble. We want to make sure we're getting used to doing that. So that's been good. It's very deliberate in that regard."
Taylor's pick-six — the 6-footer stayed underneath the corner route but was still able to play underneath the throw and rally to the play — was an embodiment of the defense's growth, Beaty said.
“He did exactly what he was coached to do," Beaty said, "and it paid off.”
In addition to his first career interception, Dineen left Mount Pleasant, Mich., with a game-high 14 tackles and a performance good enough to earn the Big 12’s defensive player of the week award Monday. He didn’t leave with a pick-six of his own, though — the Lawrence native tumbled after securing the takeaway.
“I was really excited I caught it, and then I fell,” Dineen said. “So hopefully I can grab another one and try and go score, but I hopefully won’t lose my footing on the next one I catch.”
If Jayhawks keep up the breakneck pace on takeaways they displayed Saturday, Dineen might just find himself with a second shot at paydirt.