MU not in holiday spirit when it comes to turnovers

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

SHREVEPORT, La. -- It's no accident that Missouri has the fewest turnovers in the nation.

Mistake-avoidance is a daily topic with the Tigers, who are preparing for the Independence Bowl Wednesday night against Arkansas. They have only 10 all year, less than one per game.

"We coach it, we work on it," Dave Christensen, Missouri's offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, said Monday. "It's not like it just happened this year, it's happened for a long time in our program."

In 35 games under head coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri (8-4) has totaled 38 turnovers. The next-fewest in the country over that period is Minnesota with 50, and the next-best ball security team in the Big 12 is Oklahoma with 55.

How the Tigers do it, well, apparently is their little secret.

Senior tailback Zack Abron said his teammates get him accustomed to getting a tight grip in practice.

"We work on it every day," Abron said. "They've got the defense out there trying to rip it out. It's about maintaining ball leverage."

Quarterback Brad Smith agreed that it's an attitude.

"They stress it a lot in practice," Smith said. "We protect the ball as we run. So we've been pretty good at holding onto it."

To Christensen, it's more than that. And it's instructive to note that the second-best team in avoiding turnovers this year is Toledo, Pinkel's old school, with 14.

"We have some philosophies and I don't care to share those ideas right now with the world," Christensen said. "They work pretty well for us and we'll continue to do them."

A problem in just one game

Missouri was plagued with slippery fingers only once this year. Quarterback Brad Smith accounted for four turnovers -- two fumbles and two interceptions -- that led to a 21-16 loss Nov. 8 at Colorado even though the Tigers dominated the game statistically with 447 total yards to 276 for the Buffaloes.

That loss knocked Missouri out of the Top 25 -- for good, so far -- heading into their first meeting with Arkansas (8-4) in 40 years.

One of the fumbles came when Smith reached for the goal line with the ball, leading Pinkel to ban that practice. Both Smith and backup running back Damien Nash were caught reaching the next game, but since then there have been very few such instances.

On the year, Missouri has had seven turnover-free games. Only the Kansas game, a dud in every other phase, was a loss.

The Tigers are on the rise in that category after four turnover-free games last year, a 5-7 season, and two in 2001, a 4-7 season. They've set a school record for fewest turnovers each of the last two years, after committing 12 last season.

Smith does his part by being smart in the passing game, too. He has six interceptions in 320 attempts, sixth-best in the NCAA.

"A lot of our success is the quarterback not throwing the ball to the other team," Christensen said. "And Brad does a good job of that."

Smith's numbers aren't quite as impressive as last year, when he emerged as a redshirt freshman sensation. Last season he became the second player in the nation to get 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing in the same season, and he needs 178 yards passing to do it again.

Missouri isn't concerned about Smith hitting that milestone again. It's much better for him to hang on to the ball and make Arkansas beat him.,

"If he doesn't throw interceptions, if he has a good percentage of completions, if he doesn't turn the ball over, he may not have huge statistics but we can still win the game," Christensen said. "I think that's more important than just him having big numbers or having small numbers."

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