No. 9 Oklahoma State's no-star defense succeeding with depth
September 10, 2017
STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — It's well documented how No. 9 Oklahoma State relies upon its explosive offense to win games, but the Cowboys also have improved on defense this season.
Unlike the past two years when stars like Emanuel Ogbah and Vincent Taylor helped anchor the defense, Oklahoma State (2-0) has been succeeding without any big-time elite players. Instead, the Cowboys have done the job with depth, using a large stable of solid, effective defenders.
"I mentioned that throughout the summer that we didn't have that guy that people were going to talk about being an early round (NFL draft) pick, but I did like our overall team speed, I liked our depth," coach Mike Gundy said. "I thought we had more guys that could play in a game than even we had over the last couple of years, and I think you're seeing some of that at this time."
It all came together Friday night in a 44-7 victory over South Alabama, in which Oklahoma State allowed just 1 of 10 third-down conversions and 41 yards rushing the entire game while compiling four sacks and two turnovers — an interception by Justin Phillips and a fumble forced by Cole Walterscheid and recovered by DeQuinton Osborne. The team also forced four consecutive 3-and-out possessions in the first quarter, surrendering just nine total yards, while taking a 17-0 lead.
Gundy was particularly happy about the performance on third downs, especially after the Cowboys allowed Tulsa to go 16 for 26 on third-down conversions in their season-opening 59-24 win on Aug. 31.
"We've been pretty good on first down, and in the last game, we improved considerably on third down," Gundy said.
Oklahoma State also dealt with a couple of injuries at the linebacker position and hasn't missed a beat.
When starter Kenneth Edison-McGruder couldn't play Friday, Calvin Bundage stepped in and did well, at least until he was ejected early in the third quarter for targeting. Sophomore Kevin Henry, who had six tackles in the Tulsa game, also was unable to play, so with three of their top six LBs unavailable for most of the second half, senior backups Kirk Tucker and Gyasi Akem saw more time in the rotation and filled in admirably. Tucker finished with a team-high five tackles and had one sack, while Akem had three tackles.
Henry, out with a knee injury, is not expected back and Bundage also will miss the first half of Saturday's matchup at Pittsburgh (1-1), so expect Tucker and Akem to continue see extended action.
"We lost Henry, which was unfortunate, and we won't have Bundage for the first half, and then McGruder is day-to-day, so we might have to have some of those guys playing a little more," Gundy said. "Tucker plays a big role on our special teams and got a lot of snaps on defense. He's a veteran guy, so he understands commitment and what it takes to play well and have to play more than what you originally thought you'd have to play in any particular game.
"(Gyasi) will have to play a little more. I think we may shuffle a few guys around to try to balance out that depth chart. They've been lifetime guys for us, they've been really committed. Gyasi has gone through a transition where he's really grown up a lot in the last couple of years and Tucker's always been a very squared-away guy."
Another question mark for the Cowboys entering the season was their young secondary, with sophomore A.J. Green and freshman Rodarius Williams first-time starters at cornerback. They are joined by senior safeties Tre Flowers and Ramon Richards, who shifted from cornerback during the off-season.
Through two games, Oklahoma State has given up an average of 161 yards passing per game, which ranks fourth in the Big 12 and 41st in the nation. The longest passing play the Cowboys have allowed was a 26-yard pass from Tulsa's Chad President to Keenan Johnson, and that came in the third quarter with OSU leading 38-14.
"They're coming along. We're obviously young and teams we play know that," Gundy said of the secondary. "I'm sure Pitt's going to run their play stuff and try to throw it over our head and challenge us. Minimizing big plays is important. Last year, that was one of the issues that we had, we gave up too many big plays in the secondary. We've done a better job at that."