Lions try to turn over new leaf

PENN STATE

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Improvement in football can be an arduous process. Not only is it difficult to spot precise errors, it's even harder to fix them once a game has started and 11 opponents are lined up trying to destroy you.

But few Penn State players and coach Bill O'Brien will hesitate when asked to come up with a problem they believe can be solved: turnovers.

Penn State has the worst turnover margin in the Big Ten at minus-7, even worse than its opponent today, Purdue. The Nittany Lions have lost 11 fumbles -- four more than any other conference team -- and have thrown eight interceptions.

They also seem to turn the ball over at some of the most inopportune times. Against Ohio State, quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw an interception in the red zone on the first drive. Last week against Minnesota, running back Bill Belton fumbled on the opening play, and Hackenberg fumbled at the Gophers 2 in the fourth quarter in what turned out to be Penn State's last offensive play.

"I think some of the things we look at are: did the defense make a good play, maybe the guy caught a pass and turned and the ball was stripped right away and it was difficult for that guy to secure the football," O'Brien said. "There are other times that, to me, it's just a complete lack of focus."

He said the solution goes deeper than yelling and lecturing, though there is some of that. For instance, the coaching staff attempts to ingrain among the players that when they are carrying the ball they are "carrying the hopes and dreams of this football team." At practice Monday, O'Brien said he followed the general routine of showing the good, bad and ugly from the previous game, taking particular care to point out the turnovers.

To fix the problem, he said the staff has taken alternative measures. Running back Zach Zwinak, for instance, has worn gloves since the Illinois game -- his own idea.

In two games since the switch, he has been fumble-free and gained 175 yards on 32 carries. If the rest of the team can follow his lead, the next three games could turn out more favorably.

"If you play sound football and limit your mistakes, the wins take care of themselves" guard John Urschel said.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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