Oklahoma State has become a fashionable pick to contend for its first Big 12 title since 2011 and perhaps even challenge for the national championship.
The Cowboys will feature one of the nation’s most potent offenses keyed by quarterback Mason Rudolph, a slew of talented receivers, and 1,000-yard back Justice Hill. They won’t have any trouble scoring points.
But the Cowboys’ title hopes depend on them playing much better defense than last season. Oklahoma State ranked 92nd nationally in total defense and 98th in passing yards allowed.
Inexperienced in the trenches
Only linebacker Chad Whitener and end Jarrell Owens are experienced in the front seven. Even in a pass-happy league such as the Big 12, a lack of muscle up front will be exposed during a nine-game conference schedule.
Four of Oklahoma State’s top seven tacklers from last season are gone. The loss of All-Big 12 tackle Vincent Taylor, currently in Miami Dolphins training camp, will be a tough one to fill.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said he’s found a strong player in linebacker Patrick Mason, the 2016 National Junior College Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year at Arizona Western Community College. Macon notched 122 tackles, providing a glimpse of the run-stuffing talent the Cowboys badly need.
“He should be a really good player inside the tackles,” Gundy told reporters this week. “Sometimes in this league he will have to get out of the box a little bit. I’m hoping he will be the throwback linebacker from the old days … and in the running game be able to take guards and such.”
Gundy hopes for a duplication from last season after some early pitfalls. Oklahoma State finished the season allowing fewer than 30 points per game for the first time since 2013.
And they punctuated the season with a 38-8 beatdown of Colorado in the Alamo Bowl. The Cowboys allowed 62 rushing yards, a season low for the Buffaloes.
That strong effort convinced Gundy that Big 12 defenses are better than many think.
“What’s interesting about our league is that just when you think the defenses won’t play good in a big game, they do play good,” he said. “I think that’s what makes it fun.”
Maybe it’s explainable by regularly playing potent Big 12 offenses. Oklahoma State’s defense ranked sixth in the conference in pass defense and total defense last season.
“I think it’s how everybody perceives every Big 12 defense — we all rely on our offense,” Whitener told John Helsley of the Oklahoman. “Personally, I feel like that’s bull crap.
“The offenses we play, they’re very high-paced and efficient offenses. The way we win is we need to slow them down more than they slow down our offense. And we’ve been really good at that the last two or three years.”
OSU’s productive defensive history
The Cowboys have won at least 10 games in five of the last seven seasons. And their defense has been productive enough to notch a plus-24 turnover differential the last two seasons. That’s second nationally behind San Diego State (plus-39).
Oklahoma State also has made big plays on defense, ranking third nationally since 2010 with 39 non-offensive touchdowns.
A rebuilt secondary will be charged to keep that trend alive. It will feature two new cornerbacks after two-year starter Ramon Richards moved to free safety.
It’s a risky move considering the lack of experiences on the perimeter. But it’s one Gundy embraces because it brings more athleticism to the group.
“I think we’ll be better on defense than what people think, because we’re faster,” Gundy said. “Over the last six or seven years, we’ve got a little bit of a different cut of an athlete to start working with in our recruiting. They’re a little taller, a little longer, a little faster.”
Strong safety Tre Flowers, Oklahoma State’s lone preseason All-Big 12 defensive selection, is its most experienced defensive player. He returns as the Cowboys’ active tackles leader and has started since 2014.
Transfer Adrian Baker, who was in line to start at Clemson last season before injuries, appears set at one corner. And Madre Harper, who appeared in 12 games last season as a freshman, has the inside track at the other cornerback spot after a strong spring.
“We’re expecting some of our younger players, who don’t have a lot of the game experience, to really be productive as the season progresses,” Gundy said. “We’re going to play with five defensive backs in this league, and we have to have some guys that are somewhat versatile, but [cornerback] is one of the positions that’s lacking experience. As a coach, you’re always concerned about that.”
The nature of the Big 12 should lessen Gundy’s worries. And with Oklahoma State’s productive offense, the defense can be productive at spurts and the Cowboys can still win big.