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The ball! The ball! The ball!
It's a common refrain heard at Minnesota practices, which is used to emphasize the importance of taking care of the football.
After all, the ball is the program. So much so, that the words THE BALL IS THE PROGRAM are prominently displayed in Minnesota's team meeting room.
Also, hanging up in the team meeting room is a chart that lists all 14 Big Ten teams and their turnover margin for the season.
"It's the number one stat in football and that's why the board is there," said Gopher head coach P.J. Fleck. "That doesn't have a win or a loss by it, to rank who's in first in our conference. That has turnover margin. And if you come back in here during the season, for the most part, it's going to look -- the top teams are going to be toward the top and the bottom teams are going to be towards the bottom, and that's how we teach the process here of becoming a champion, not just the result because there's always things behind the result."
Minnesota had a +0 turnover margin against Buffalo, but beat the Bulls 17-7 to open the season. Minnesota was +2 last week at Oregon State and throttled the Beavers 48-14 on the road. The Gophers scored 17 points off of the three turnovers it forced against Oregon State.
Minnesota's two backs - Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks - do an elite job of taking care of the ball. Smith, who tied his career high with 30 carries at Oregon State, enters Saturday with 208 consecutive carries without a fumble. His last fumble was against Iowa in 2016. Brooks enters Saturday with 199 consecutive carries without a fumble. His last fumble came against Illinois in 2015, which is the same game he rushed for 174 yards and three touchdowns.
Where did Coach Fleck get this strict attention to detail about the ball? Look no further than offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who has always stressed taking care of the football.
"I really believe it is a personal choice," said Ciarrocca. "In order to take care of the ball, you have to understand the value of the ball. It's a process. We preach about the ball from the very beginning. The ball is the program and it has been that way anywhere I have ever coaches. We have to take care of it a certain way to be success."
Part of the process that Ciarrocca talks about extends well beyond Saturdays in the fall - where Gopher players can be seen handing the ball to an official after every play. In practice, players never drop a ball after a drill or touchdown. Instead, they always hand it back to an equipment manager. Minnesota even runs a drill - where players and coaches try to pry the ball loose from players - that strictly reinforces the importance of the ball.
Having the ball more than the other team is also extremely beneficial for the defense. Minnesota has not allowed a point in the second half this season and has allowed only 21 points in two games. The Gophers are one of eight teams who have not yielded a second-half point this year. A stout defense - Minnesota is tied for thirteenth in the nation and ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 10.5 points - is the main reason for that, but another reason is that Minnesota has controlled the ball on offense.
The Gophers are third in the nation and first in the Big Ten in time of possession at 37:37. Minnesota had a fourth-quarter drive at Oregon State that was 15 plays (all rushes), covered 77 yards and lasted a whopping 9:24.
That drive was Minnesota's longest since 2013. But again, it all goes back to taking care of the ball.
"That's when we know we are executing at a high level, when we are controlling the football," said Fleck.
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