Life in the Third Ward is the slap game from hell. You can smack the football out before, during, or after any drill, during any part of practice and at any point in time you see a football at the University of Houston. Life as a Cougar defender is a never-ending, 24/7 strip drill.
"We'll be at the house and start messin' around if someone's got a ball, tryin' to take it out," defensive back Adrian McDonald says.
Or if you don't see a football, you can slap something out of your teammates' hands when you're at home as roommates.
"I mean, nothing nice that can be broken. But we've gone through a few remotes."
That includes head coach Tony Levine, a former wide receiver who allows for defensive players to try and sneak up to punch a notebook or clipboard from his hands.
"No. They haven't been successful at that yet," Levine says.
"It's ridiculous. I'm sure if I was an offensive coach here, I would hate it," defensive coordinator David Gibbs says.
The Cougars finished 5-7 in 2012, Levine's first year taking over UH from Kevin Sumlin. Levine shook up his staff and spent an offseason playing with analytics. During that time he found no better statistical correlation for wins than total turnovers and turnover margins.
He hired Gibbs, a national title-winning defensive back at Colorado and a veteran NFL secondary coach, to streamline his defense. He gathered his staff and players in August of 2013 with a PowerPoint presentation featuring two slides. First, 2012's top 20 teams in turnover margin and their overall records. Second, the bottom 20.
"I told our student-athletes that day, ‘We are going to coach ball security on offense and takeaways on defense harder than any other team in the country, and harder than anything else we coach in the program.’"
UH was a pedestrian 85th in the country in turnover margin (-0.33 a game) in 2012. They were creating turnovers with regularity (31 total, good for 15th nationally) but losing the ball even faster (35, the third highest amount in the FBS).
"I wanted to make it crystal clear to our offense: this is a two-way street. The defense has to bring us the football, but we couldn't keep turning it over. I told our offensive coaches, 'If you're unsure about a player's ball skills, don't use them.'"
The results have been inarguable. Houston finished 2013 8-4 and jumped from 85th to first in the nation in turnover margin at a staggering plus-25 on the season, eight higher than Louisville and national champion Florida State. The Cougars' scoring defense jumped from 110th to 20th (21.8 points per game).
Total yardage is a stat often cited by analysts and fans. At Houston, it's ignored outright.
"As far as I’m concerned, we can be last in the nation in total defense as long as we’re in the top 20 in scoring defense," Levine says.
And despite breaking in a new quarterback in John O'Korn, team interceptions cut in half, from 20 in 2012 to 10 in '13. Houston recovered 63 percent of all fumbles (27 of 43) and intercepted almost one pass for every two recorded pass break-ups (25 interceptions, 55 PBUs), according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly. To a statistician, there's only one word to qualify those kind of numbers:
Going by averages, Houston's turnover margin should have been somewhere in the neighborhood of plus-3 or plus-4 last season. It was plus-25. The difference works out to about eight points per game. Pick your adverb. Houston was absurdly, insanely, hilariously, incomprehensibly lucky last year when it came to the bouncing of a pointy football.
UH is only 4-3, but turnovers have spelled most of the season for Levine's team. In an embarrassing home loss to UTSA, the Cougars were minus-5, and in four wins, they've finished a combined plus-11. UH even lost at BYU, 33-25, but finished plus-3 in Provo against a healthy Taysom Hill.
After defeating Temple by 31-10 on October 17 (plus-4 turnover margin), the Cougars have the nation's longest streak of consecutive games with at least one takeaway, at 30. They're currently No. 1 in takeaways per game.
So is it just simple luck if Houston's streak keeps on going?
To promote fumbling, every football became live, all the time, six days a week.
In practice, coaches had a running back run 20 yards downfield, then turn around to jog back to the huddle. Levine quietly ordered the secondary to strip the ball on the jog back, after the whistle was blown, at first surprising his offense. This season, the distance increased to 30 yards, with every single 60-yard round trip a battle for the football.
It's on display during a mid-week practice, as Houston's players bounce and bark at one another over a wall of hip-hop music, playing nonstop during practice periods. Speaking quietly under the blast of Rick Ross, Slim Thug and Puff Daddy, Gibbs is relentless with his players, but never loud. It's an approach that could become an emerging trend, set by ex-NFLers like Gibbs: more man-to-man corrective statements, less chest beating and theatrics.
"It starts with having a real coach who speaks to us like real men. He puts the best players on the field. He doesn't like to yell too much," McDonald says.
Gibbs' second year of what he dubbed "The Third Ward Defense," named for the rough-and-tumble Houston neighborhood that borders the UH campus and practice fields, has UH at 10th nationally in scoring defense despite the additions of more spread teams (Tulane, East Carolina, Tulsa) to the AAC.
"They’re tough, most of ‘em are tough, inner city kids who are fighting like crazy to get out a place like the Third Ward. Even if they’re not all from that area, they’re stereotyped that way," Gibbs says.
"It's the neighborhood we live in," says McDonald. "You go to the store and it's dirty, nasty. You see a lotta crazy stuff people like me, where I'm from [Lawton, Okla.] aren't used to."
"I knew the culture had changed last season when a regular pass was thrown in practice, fell incomplete, skipped across the turf and two of our defensive players ran as fast as they could to try and bring the ball back," Levine said.
Fostering interceptions became a function of Gibbs' chess-match scheme. Just as hurry-up offenses run a base set of plays over and over from different formations, Houston's defense would run the same calls from multiple looks. This flexibility is due in part to UH's rush end position, a linebacker who plays as a standing defensive end regardless of a 3-4, 4-3 or nickel look.
"There's plenty of disadvantages now coming from the NFL to college, namely the option and zone read stuff. But if you know it’s a pass, if you know they have to pass, coverage-wise, scheme-wise, you can fool a quarterback into throwing you the football. I’m not saying you’ll catch it, but I’m saying the advantage to me -- and it’s the only advantage I’ve come up with -- if I know it’s pass ... let’s say it’s a two-minute situation. If he’s throwing the ball most of the time, eventually I can keep changing coverages and fool a quarterback. I can give him conflict within the game. That might sound like total BS. I don’t know, but I can get him to misread a coverage at one point."
Gibbs estimates that a college quarterback can be fooled by coverages into throwing a potential interception at least once every six passing plays. When Memphis went to its two-minute offense down by four late in the fourth quarter, it only took four plays. Instead of playing man coverage on third downs, Houston switched to two high safeties playing zone. It confused Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch into throwing one interception earlier in the game, and by UH's estimate, confused his reads when UH would show zone but play man. Lynch's second INT to Efrem Oliphant sealed a season-changing win.
Gibbs has a theory that tempo, spread offenses sacrifice two tenets of old-school football logic when it comes to turnovers:
1. Maximizing the skill players with the best hands. Spread teams often rotate skill players during a drive.
"I’ve thought about this. You used to see one or two wide receivers, one tight end and one or two tailbacks touch the ball in an entire game. Now all of a sudden, they’re playing up to four running backs and eight to 10 receivers. So in my mind, well, I don’t care what you tell me, not all these guys have good ball security. I tell my guys there’s no way a team’s really got 10 wide receivers. We’re getting the ball from one. One of ‘em’s giving it up."
2. The lack of attention given to turnovers in hurry-up practice schedules. Gibbs took a full year off after being let go by the Texans in 2011 and toured college campuses to scout systems before joining the Cougars.
"When you see practices with hurry up and no huddle, even when the ball comes out or there’s an interception, you know what they do? They line up and go run the next play. They might scream at a guy for two seconds, but if you’re the player who just fumbled the ball, and they’re snapping it again in a few seconds, how long are you thinking about fumbling the football?"
There can be a downside. The emphasis on ball-stripping, no matter how technically sound, allows for additional yardage. That's why Houston ignores total yardage, because a 65-yard drive that ends with a fumble recovery is always better than a 45-yard drive that ends with a field goal.
"When I do clinics, I tell people, ‘There’s a fine line between missed tackles and stripped footballs,’" says Gibbs. "We lost our bowl game because our two best tacklers, [McDonald and Trevon Stewart], tackled their running back, and 23 tries to strip, AMac does what he does and tries to strip, and that little running back from Vanderbilt breaks free for about 50 yards. Set up the go-ahead touchdown. There’s give and take there, no doubt. But in my mind, to win the number of games we need to, we have to take the football away. So we sacrifice some."
Entering Saturday's game at USF, the Cougars are No. 1 in turnovers forced per game and 13th in turnover margin per game, with the disparity perhaps due to having used three different quarterbacks. Levine expects the numbers to even out, even with the strength of conference play -- five AAC games in six weeks -- remaining.
If the numbers hold, Houston might not reach the plus-25 of last season. But it is betting on an extending a trend that defies the logic of "luck."
"Here’s what we believe. if you teach three things fundamentally, how to tackle, how to take the football away, and effort -- 11 guys sprinting to the ball -- when the fumble comes out, you are going to get it 63 percent and not 50 percent," says Levine. "I’m not a luck guy. I believe in numbers. I believe things happen for a reason. We’re gonna do what we do and when we do what we do, we’re going to get turnovers."