IOWA CITY — Toren Young can almost hear it in his sleep.
"High and tight, high and tight," simple words that echo through the mind of any running back.
The Iowa junior hears them all the time, and Young believes the constant reminders do make a difference.
"It’s a basic fundamental for anybody carrying the football, keep it high and tight," Young said. "It’s sounds simple, but it matters."
The results can be found the 4-0 record 14th-ranked Iowa takes into Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at 19th-ranked Michigan.
The Hawkeyes have run 296 plays this season but have turned the ball over just once, losing a fumble during the second half of a season-opening win over Miami (Ohio).
Only one other team in the country, Oregon State, matches the level of ball security Iowa has had during the opening weeks of the season.
Coach Kirk Ferentz believes it isn’t an accident.
"Part of it’s experience and part of it’s concentration. I think those two things help us," Ferentz said. "For the most part, guys touching the football have some experience, and concentration is something everybody is capable of, but those things have to go together with fundamentals on top of it. But, that’s concentration, too."
It’s a game changer.
Ask the Wolverines.
Michigan has fumbled 12 times during their 3-1 start, losing seven, and have turned the ball over 10 times already this year. That number ranks 110th among the 130 teams playing in college football’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Wolverines fumbled the ball away on the opening drive of their first three games of the season.
"It’s become a bit of an issue in that we’re putting our team in some bad positions with so many of them being early. … It’s definitely devastating, and we’ve gotta find a way," offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said before Michigan turned the ball over just once on an interception in last week’s 52-0 rout of Rutgers.
The impact of turnovers is something Ferentz talks about regularly with the Hawkeyes.
"Every week, we hear about it," running back Mekhi Sargent said. "The point is that taking care of the football is big if you want to win games."
Ferentz considers that to be at the core of his philosophical beliefs.
Those roots run deep, to the time he spent as an offensive line coach on Hayden Fry’s Iowa staff in the 1980s to his work with Ted Marchibroda on the Baltimore Ravens staff in the NFL from 1996-98.
"I remember coach Fry saying ‘Before you’re going to win, you can’t lose games,’ and Ted Marchibroda always said more games are lost than won. Those old axioms are really true," Ferentz said.
"You look at that 1981 (Iowa) ball club, we were not prolific offensively by any stretch of the imagination, but we had a pretty salty defense, had the best punter in the world and a pretty solid kicking game. We found a way to be successful, and protecting the ball was paramount."
Ferentz believes that ball security, which translates to extended drives and advantages in time of possession, puts teams in a position to be successful.
"To me it’s no different than tackling well on defense," he said. "If you don’t do those things consistently then you’d better be more talented than every opponent you play, and that’s hard to do."
Ball security is part of the drill work Iowa players participate in on a regular basis.
In one, a player running from behind tries to punch the ball out of the ball carrier’s hands from behind.
In another, an assistant coach will swing at the ball from different directions as a running back attempts to walk through a 10-yard course.
"It’s something we do pretty much every day," Young said. "It’s not a lot of fun, a guy doing what he can to knock the ball away, but it prepares you really well."
That ball security extends to the decisions quarterback Nate Stanley is making when he prepares to pass.
The Hawkeye senior will take the field at Michigan Stadium looking to add to a collection of 136 consecutive pass attempts without being intercepted.
Only five quarterbacks at the FBS level have an active interception-free streak longer than the one Stanley has put together since being intercepted on his first pass attempt in the third quarter of the Hawkeyes’ Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State on New Year’s Day.
"You want to make sure that you’re making smart decisions, putting the ball where it isn’t going to be intercepted," Stanley said.
Sometimes, that means intentionally overthrowing a potential receiver to avoid a possession-costing mistake.
"When you look at what he’s doing, he’s making all the right decisions," receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. "He’s got us all headed in the right direction."
That, Stanley said, is the ultimate goal.
"We want to play complimentary football, and the less turnovers, the longer we’re sustaining drives, that enables the defense to play harder when it’s on the field and get the three and outs they want," Stanley said. "It’s huge for us to keep the ball in our hands and work the clock the best we can. At the end of the day, it shows."
The bottom line?
Iowa carries a seven-game win streak into Saturday’s game at Michigan, winning the turnover margin in each.
"It does make a difference," Young said. "The numbers, they don’t lie."