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September 27, 2013When Michigan coach Brady Hoke addressed the media after his team narrowly escaped Connecticut 24-21 (which was a week after the Wolverines narrowly escaped Akron 28-24), he made no bones about what issue had him most concerned.
"You can't give the ball away," Hoke said in his opening statement. "Right now, we've got a major-league problem, and we've got to fix it, because that's not going to win you championships."
The Wolverines have coughed up 12 turnovers on the season, which is tied for second-to-last nationally. Western Kentucky leads the country in turnovers surrendered with 15.
So, how big of a concern are turnovers?
"What was the question? You said something about turnovers and I got nervous," fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said, when asked about turnovers.
"They're huge. You can't have more turnovers than the defense is getting for you. You can't have it. If you want to be a successful Big Ten Championship team, you have to be in the plus. You can't be in the minus."
Of the 10 teams with the most turnovers in the country, Michigan is the only team that has navigated the early weeks of the season without a loss. Five of the teams have yet to win a game, and the 10 schools (including Michigan's 4-0 record) have combined for a 12-25 record in the first four weeks of the season.
Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner has been the biggest culprit, with eight interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Gardner is tied with Washington State's Connor Halliday and Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty for the most interceptions thrown by a quarterback this season.
Gardner has thrown at least one interception in each of his nine career starts and at least two in three of four games this season.
"It's never one guy, and that's the beautiful thing about football," Lewan said. "It's not like basketball where you can just have your star player go out there and outscore everybody. It's football - 11 men out there doing their job. If you have 10 guys doing their job, you're going to have a sack or a TFL, and that's how it is."
In the last 15 years, the Wolverines have had just one season in which they gave away more turnovers in the first four games: the 3-9 season in 2008, when the team totaled 14 giveaways in the first four games.
"You can't be loose with the ball, and we do that a little bit too much," Hoke said. "We've just got to keep working and being conscious of how we're handling the situations at times. Throwing the ball out of bounds is pretty good. You get the ball back, or you can punt. We've just got to keep running home that message."
Three of the Wolverines' turnovers have resulted in defensive touchdowns for the opponent: an interception in the end zone for Notre Dame; a 27-yard pick-six for Akron; and a 34-yard fumble return for a score by Connecticut.
But when the Michigan defense does get a chance to respond to a turnover, they have done very well.
The Wolverines have surrendered just 13 total points and three scores after a turnover that didn't result in a defensive touchdown for the opponent.
On two of the three scores, the opponent got the ball inside the Michigan 10-yard line. Central Michigan picked off Gardner inside the 10-yard line, and the defensive surrendered just a field goal, and freshman receiver Da'Mario Jones accidentally touched a punt and gave Connecticut the ball at the seven-yard line.
"We have to work as a team," junior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan said. "If something happens on one side of the ball, the other side has to respond and have their back. That is something we've always challenged ourselves on defense, especially the sudden-change situations where there is a turnover or something in the red zone. We have to have each other's backs on both sides of the ball. That's what makes this a team sport."
Turnovers have been a problem for the Wolverines for quite a while. Since Michigan coach Brady Hoke took over before the 2011 season, the Wolverines have posted 61 turnovers, slightly over two per game. Just 10 teams have amassed more turnovers in that time frame.
The program has not had a season with fewer than 22 turnovers since 2006 (12 turnovers). In the last six years, they have ranked better than 83rd nationally in total turnovers surrendered just once, ranking 57th in 2011 with 22 turnovers.
As of Sept. 21, Michigan ranks No. 117 nationally with a minus-five turnover margin. The Wolverines are just one of three Big Ten teams with a negative turnover margin (Indiana minus-one, Penn State minus-three).
Michigan is well on pace to finish with a worse turnover margin than last year's minus-nine, which ranked 101st nationally.
The Wolverines have had just one season in the last five with a positive turnover margin. They lost 22 and collected 29 turnovers for a plus-seven margin in 2011.