Rutgers committed an average of 1.6 turnovers and 5.3 penalties per game last year, the first under head coach Chris Ash, despite him and his staff preaching clean football before, during and after all 12 games.
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Ash continued preaching over the offseason, but the Scarlet Knights' turnover and penalty numbers got worse. They averaged two turnovers and 7.2 penalties over their first eight games of 2017.
"Those things don't get cleaned up overnight," Ash told HERO Sports. "We emphasis playing clean football and taking care of the football every single day in meetings, walk-throughs and practice."
Then came their win over Purdue, when they committed just four penalties and zero turnovers, tying the lowest combined penalty-turnover total of the Ash era. They broke it the next week with zero turnovers and three penalties in a loss to Michigan (35-14), or five fewer than they had in a 78-0 loss to the Wolverines last year.
Three of their four lost fumbles on the season (31st-fewest in the FBS) came, oddly, in a win at Illinois, when they scored 35 points, the most vs. a Power Five team in the last two years. Unless the Scarlet Knights begin coughing up the ball at a record pace, they'll finish with far fewer than 12 lost fumbles (108th in the FBS) they had in 2016. And despite Kyle Bolin and Johnathan Lewis combining for eight interceptions — already one more than all of 2016 — their turnover margin has improved from minus-0.42 (98th) to plus-0.13 (58th).
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"We had a hiccup against Illinois with three fumbles but other than we've been really clean this year in the fumble department," Ash added. "Penalties have been an issue early in the season and we've really been emphasizing it, having accountability, trying to clean that up and trying to get our players to understand those things get you beat. And I think just the continued emphasis and continued focus and improvement on some of things we had issues with, it's gotten better."
He's right; it has gotten a lot better. They're still committing one more penalty on average per game this year vs. 2016 (6.3 vs. 5.3) but that number has plummeted nearly one full penalty from just two weeks ago.
The next step is keeping those numbers low for their remaining four games, three of which are against teams that either rank in the top 15 nationally in turnovers or penalties forced, including Penn State, whose 20 forced turnovers rank fifth in the FBS.