- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Football coaches and players discuss the importance of winning the turnover battle, the words can almost ring hollow. But when LSU players say they must protect the football Saturday against Ole Miss, it's more than just an empty football cliché.
The No. 3 Rebels (7-0, 4-0 SEC) have an uncanny ability to swing games by creating turnovers at key moments.
"Their defense are ball hawks," LSU receiver Travin Dural said. "If you're giving your offense the ball on the opponent's side of the field a lot, they're going to score, and that's what they've been doing. We're going to try our best to flip the field as much as we can."
No. 24 LSU (6-2, 2-2) has turned the ball over only nine times this season, and it might need to maintain that trend on Saturday if it is to have any chance of upsetting the Rebels. Not only does Ole Miss lead the nation with 90 points off turnovers, but it has been remarkably consistent.
The Rebels have either scored a defensive touchdown or created a turnover to take control of the contest in each game this season:
They were up 14-6 in the fourth quarter of the opener against Boise State when Tony Conner intercepted a pass at the Broncos' 40-yard line. Two plays later, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace hit Quincy Adeboyejo with a 31-yard touchdown pass to go up 21-6.
Cornerback Cliff Coleman returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown in Ole Miss' win against Vanderbilt.
Cornerback Senquez Golson -- who leads the SEC and is second nationally with seven interceptions -- had a 59-yard pick-six against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Ole Miss led Memphis 10-3 a few minutes into the fourth quarter when Ole Miss freshman Marquis Haynes forced a Paxton Haynes fumble that Issac Gross recovered at the Memphis 23. Rebels running back Jaylen Walton ran for a 23-yard touchdown on the next play to put Ole Miss up 17-3.
The score was tied at 17-all against Alabama when Crimson Tide return man Christion Jones fumbled a kickoff and Ole Miss' Kailo Moore recovered at the Alabama 31 with 5:29 to play. Five plays later, Wallace hit Walton with the game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass.
Last week against Tennessee, the Rebels were up 17-3 in the third quarter when Volunteers return man Evan Berry fumbled and Haynes recovered at the UT 28. Wallace hit Evan Engram with a 28-yard touchdown pass on the next play to go up 24-3.
In other words, this is a well-established habit for the Rebels, and the Tigers understand that protecting the ball will be particularly important on Saturday.
"We pride ourself on not turning the ball over in the backfield," running back Terrence Magee said. "We work ball security every day before we get into the core of practice, and it's just something that we work on a routine basis. We realize that if we don't turn the ball over and we win the turnover margin, our chances of winning are much greater."
LSU has won or tied in turnover margin in every game this season except last week's 41-3 win against Kentucky. The Tigers have actually been extremely effective themselves at turning takeaways into points, outscoring opponents 72-7 following turnovers -- a differential that ranks third among FBS teams. Only Oregon's plus 79 (79-0) and Ole Miss' plus-71 (90-19) points-off-turnovers margins are better.
That creates a competition of sorts between an LSU secondary that prides itself as being one of the best in the nation and a group of Rebels defensive backs who are tied for the FBS lead with 15 interceptions.
"You could say that," Jefferson said, "but we're looking to be on top. That's what we're trying to do as DBs."
LSU's defensive backs could accomplish that goal by capitalizing on mistakes by Wallace, and he hasn't made many this season. Ole Miss' senior quarterback has tossed six interceptions overall and none in SEC play.
Just as important will be avoiding the back-breaking offensive mistakes that set up short drives for Ole Miss. Understandably, that has been a point of emphasis for the Tigers this week.
"Just end every drive with a kick," Dural said. "Try not to make those mental mistakes to where we give them the ball with a short field."