Oregon’s Fate Lies in Turnovers

Ryan Robertson Editorials 10 Comments

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Turnover differential is one of the most important stats in all of football, and perhaps no team in all of college football exemplifies that more than the Oregon Ducks. For a long time now, the Oregon Ducks’ turnover margin has determined the team’s fate.

Oregon has generally been one of the best programs in college football since the start of the 2010s. The Ducks have their fair share of excitement, with high flying offenses so good we still fondly remember them, and a defense that might be the best in school history. But aside from those moments of greatness, the Ducks have also had a whole slew of special teams blunders, seasons ruined by baffling losses with playoff implications, and quite a few coaching changes. At the end of the day, the only stat that has effectively predicted the win-loss record is turnover differential.

Chip Kelly / Mark Helfrich Era

Kevin Cline

Marcus Mariota rarely turned the ball over at Oregon.

The Chip Kelly offense produced remarkably few turnovers. Their focus on ball security with the runners resulted in Oregon rarely (if ever) fumbling the football. The offensive focus on retaining possession resulted in few interceptions, meaning that the turnover rate was negligible. The lack of turnovers by the offense created more scoring opportunities, and with these opportunities, the offense scored more than 40 points per game for the entirety of the Kelly era.

The high rate of scoring under Kelly was, in itself, a form of defense. By scoring 40+ points per game, the offense forced opposing teams to make more and more desperate plays as the game went on. Throwing the ball late, deep, and down the middle made quite a few Oregon safeties look like ballhawks.

The Kelly defenses didn’t necessarily force fumbles less often on running plays than any other team, but nearly every team they faced turned in to an air raid offense in the second half of every game. This resulted in fewer total fumbles forced, but this may have been an anomaly due to the offenses they faced.

Kaly Harward

Boy, how much would hot-seat UCLA coach Chip Kelly love to return to his days at Oregon?

The Mark Helfrich era was much the same as the Kelly era. The offense didn’t turn the ball over much, and the defense benefitted from offenses going deep to try to make comebacks.

The difference between the two coaches is that Helfrich fielded progressively worse and worse defenses, meaning that the defensive backs who made plays on the Kelly defenses were not in Helfrich’s program. This meant that when the offense had a year (2016) with significantly more turnovers, their defense couldn’t pick up the slack, forcing the team to crash and burn.

The records for the teams led by both coaches and their national turnover differential rank are as follows: 2010: 12-1, 12th in differential. 2011: 12-2, 17th in differential. 2012: 12-1, 1st in differential (Helfrich takes over as head coach). 2013: 11-2, 19th in differential. 2014: 13-2, 1st in differential. 2015: 9-4, 37th in differential. 2016: 4-8, 81st.

Overall the correlation is clear: a better differential means a better record.

Willie Taggart / Mario Cristobal Era

Eugene Johnson

The 2019 Ducks knew how to take the ball away.

After the disastrous 4-8 season in 2016, Oregon fired Helfrich, opening the door to a new era. The coach Oregon selected to turn around the program was Willie Taggart, who evidently had a plan to change the offense that had scored so efficiently that other teams were forced to desperately throw the ball downfield.

Taggart was a bit unlucky in his one and only season in Eugene, losing star QB Justin Herbert to a broken collarbone after dominating the turnover category up until he got injured. After the injury, the team’s quarterback position became a liability, as new starters struggled to protect the football. Braxton Burmeister and Taylor Alie had seven combined interceptions to only two total passing touchdowns. The lack of a dynamic passing attack allowed defenses to key in on the run, resulting in little to no productivity on offense in nearly every game Herbert did not play.

Defensively, Taggart had a rebuilding defensive unit that did a decent job of forcing turnovers. The unit could no longer count on teams to make reckless offensive plays, as they were routinely held to fewer than 20 points during the 2017 season. This resulted in a defense that looked a lot worse on paper than how they actually played. The unit often started games strong, then spent so much time on the field that the opposing teams just piled on points in the second half.

Tom Corno

Deommodore Lenoir and the Ducks of recent years have become a more and more elite secondary under coach Cristobal

After Taggart departed from Eugene, the Ducks picked Mario Cristobal to stabilize the program. Cristobal didn’t have the same terrible luck that defined Taggart’s tenure, but his teams have also donned a completely different style of play.

Cristobal likes to control the ball on offense. Gone was the spread option, hurry up, so called “blur” offense that made the Kelly/Helfrich era memorable, and gone was the trick-play-filled, gulf coast offense that Taggart brought to town. Cristobal focused on controlling the line of scrimmage, and not scoring in a hurry. Running backs are no longer the focal point of the offense, resulting in more fumbles than ever before. The QB’s are taking fewer chances downfield, resulting in not quite as many interceptions.

Defensively is where Cristobal’s teams have shone brightly. He has, in three full seasons, fielded perhaps the three best statistical defenses since 2010. Kelly and Helfrich had several good defenses, but the offense kept them on the field so much that they had to give up points eventually. A present day Cristobal defense is focused on forcing turnovers and stopping the run. They don’t need the offense to play well to win games anymore because of their ability to force turnovers often, which results in more opportunities for points, pressuring opposing offenses to make more and more turnover-worthy plays.

The records for every team after the Helfrich-Kelly era and their national turnover differential rank are as follows: 2017: 7-6, 65th in differential (Cristobal takes over as head coach). 2018: 9-4, 26th in differential. 2019: 12-2, 5th in differential. 2020: 4-3, 121st in differential.


John Giustina

The modern Oregon Ducks are built off a single turnover.

Year after year, good differentials lead to winning teams, and worse differentials create losing tendencies. This does not necessarily persist across every team in the nation, but the Ducks certainly follow the rule. Overall, the trend is clear when the stats are laid out: if Oregon doesn’t rank in the top 30 teams in turnover differential, they won’t win many games.

Ryan Robertson
Yuma, Arizona
Top Photo By Kevin Cline

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Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

How about that BASEBALL Team?

Our Beloved Ducks are ranked No. 9 in the nation today in the D1 poll and ranges from No. 8 to No.12 in other polls. Keep hitting and pitching well Oregon!


I don’t think some of the numbers match your beliefs. specifically on the frequency that teams turned the ball over on offense.

so below is run down of how frequently each year oregon turned the ball over on a per offensive play basis(passing and rushing).

2009: 1/38 plays
2010: 1/42
2011: 1/50
2012: 1/66

2013: 1/60
2014: 1/101 **Best Year**
2015: 1/58
2016: 1/59

2017: 1/37

2018: 1/52
2019: 1/87
2020: 1/27 **Worst year**

I also Averaged out the number of running plays a coach had and the number of fumbles for the team and fumbles lost

Kelly 2490Plays fumbles 1/23 plays
fumbles lost 1/46

Helfrich 2323P Fumbles 1/26 plays
fumbles lost 1/66

Taggart 628P Fumbles 1/26
fumbles lost 1/48

Cristobal 1276P Fumbles 1/28P
fumbles lost 1/51P

I think we often have hindsight bias(arguably there are things we did a lot better under kelly and helfrich) but at this point Cristobal has some of the best turnover rates out of the last 4 coaches at oregon. This is with a horrible 2020 in which oregon lost an unprecedented 76% of all fumbles(in the previous years oregon was only over .500 four times. Of which our previous worst year was 2009 at 59%

Surely the defense didn’t create the Int’s and fumbles that it had the two years prior to 2020 but arguably that was because they lost 3 expected DB’s and their field general in Dye to the NFL. Add in limited time and it can become a lot harder to get players ready for the season. as for offense I think Oregon got two things. 1) Very unlucky with the bounce and I’d expect the percentage to be a lot closer to 50% next year and a new system/ qb that just made a lot of forced unnecessary errors.


Nice article. I’m hoping DeRuyter’s aggressive, disruptive approach produces lots of short field opportunities for the offense. The Ducks, even during Kelly’s best years, struggled to stop the run. Kelly’s teams scored so quickly and so much the opponent was forced to abandon the run just to try and keep up.

The guy who came after Kelly (whose name I will not speak) and his lack of leadership produced the two most embarrassing defeats In modern Duck football. I speak of the loss to OSU in the National Championship and TCU in the Alamo Bowl. We got plunked on defense in both games, we knew what was coming and couldn’t stop it. I know many lament the end of the blur and points coming in bunches offense. But I long for the gang green defensive intensity which shut down offenses and made every yard a war.


There’s another stat I’d like to see integrated though I don’t have it at hand. Three and outs on offense and how it relates to the field position game. I’ll happily take a plus margin in turnovers as a predictor of success but it seems like three and outs contribute significantly to losses. They showed up during CKs tenure during big games and were all too common during the MA tenure. I’d suspect oregon has many more three and outs competed to the top programs in the country.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Great research to give us good perspective on the topic, as we sure hear about turnovers often. That aspect you touched on, the playing-from-behind component during the Kelly years is one that is often overlooked and it is a big element.

If you know the other team has to pass the ball to score points, it allows the Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner pass rushers an easier time to disrupt and allow the secondary to pick the errant throws done in desperation.

Now if we could score a boatload of points again….


It doesn’t hurt to dream…..I feel the same way


The defense’s job is made easier if the offense has less 3 and outs! Good article Ryan, thanks!

Last season’s defense was better than the record if only the offense would have less interceptions and fumbles. Turnover differential is a good stat! Thanks for the reminder.

David Marsh

This makes Oregon’s hire of Tim DeRuyter all the most important. DeRuyter is known to field a defense that can get turnovers and make plays.

Pair DeRuyter’s scheme with a potentially highly talented defensive front seven and the opposing quarterbacks are going to be making bad passes all day long.

The 2020 Pac-12 Championship game shows the amount of pressure this defensive front seven is capable of, they just need to do it regularly.


I remember a few turnovers on opening day vs LSU back in 2011 that would have had a much closer score and perhaps even a winning outcome for the kids in green….

The only consolation was watching the game at the Hotel Del Coronado. Cheers.