The University at Buffalo's 2008 Mid-American Conference championship season might conjure memories of the passing of Drew Willy, the receiving of Naaman Roosevelt and the running of James Starks. There was much more to it than that.
The Bulls finished third in the country in turnover margin that season. Opponents fumbled 38 times, lost 24 and threw eight interceptions. A late-season game at Akron and the MAC Championship Game against undefeated Ball State both turned in UB's favor on vital forced-fumble recoveries. An uncanny ability to make the opposition cough up the football more than offset the deficiencies of a defense that ranked in the country's bottom third in virtually every other meaningful statistic.
Contrast 2008 with what's transpired since. The Bulls have ranked between 78th and 105th in turnover margin the last three seasons. In those 38 games, they've forced just 32 fumbles and recovered 28 (opponents fumbled another 22 times without a hit playing a role).
When the defense has forced and recovered a fumble, rarely has it been in a meaningful situation. UB currently rides a 21-game streak in which the defense - excluding special teams - has failed to recover a fumble with the Bulls either leading or trailing by 10 or fewer points.
There's no overstating the impact turnovers can have on a game and a season. UB's 2008 team finished 94th in total defense, won the MAC title and went to the International Bowl. Last year, the Bulls placed 63rd in total defense, forced just 13 turnovers and won just three games.
It's been more of the same two games into 2012. UB was one of only seven BCS teams without a turnover to its credit after Week Two and one of just 18 without an interception. The response has been to further emphasize a part of the game that head coach Jeff Quinn already long-ago identified as an area that needs improvement.
"That's obviously something that we've got to change," Quinn said. "We've got to create those opportunities. There's nothing more important than us to get the doggone fumbles and interceptions. You saw Saturday that we had one and got called for pass interference. We had another one that we dropped in the end zone. So we had two classic opportunities."
Said linebacker Scott Pettigrew, who played on the championship team: "We practice every single day and we work strip drills and turnover drills. It's just something that the ball hasn't rolled our way yet. We've had opportunities. Last game [linebacker Jake] Stockman had a strip, the ref didn't see it, thought he was down. But in film study it was a strip. There's been some opportunities here and there. We're just waiting for our time and it's going to come."
Defensive coordinator Lou Tepper said that the only way to up the turnover count is to avoid discouragement, keep at it, expect that, as Pettigrew said, "It's going to come."
"I think turnovers are somewhat ability," Tepper said. "It's somewhat good fortune. But it's also teams that work at it. You can work your tail off [but] it's kind of like when we talk to the field goal block team. Nineteen times in a row you're going to give great effort and you're going to have no chance. And then somebody's going to screw up, and if the 20th time you aren't coming as hard, you're not going to get it.
"And I think it's a lot like that on defense. We try to encourage stripping a lot. In the spring we gave a weekly award at every position for not the strips they got, the strip attempts they made. Even today as you watch our kids are trying to actively strip the ball. Does that mean we're going to get one? No. But it certainly makes it more likely."
No one has been better at separating an opponent from the football than junior linebacker Khalil Mack. He accounted for two of the team's 11 forced fumbles as a freshman. Last year, he was responsible for five of the nine. On the 2008 team, 15 players were credited with forced fumbles.
There's no time like the present for UB to rediscover a knack for forcing turnovers. The Bulls open MAC play at 7 p.m. Wednesday against visiting Kent State, which ranks fifth nationally in turnover margin (four fumbles recovered, two picks) after ranking 18th in the country a year ago.
"Our pursuit grades for the last two weeks have been up in the 93, 95 percent," Quinn said. "Every position is hustling to the football. The difference is we're not getting the ball out of their possession. That's something that we've got to be able to do because not having a turnover in two games, we better change that this week because that's going to be a big factor in the game."