STILLWATER, Okla. -- The play indicative of the Oklahoma State defense’s past came in the waning moments against the Longhorns last year.
On a fourth-and-6, Texas quarterback David Ash completed a 29-yard pass with ease across the middle of the field. During the play, the Cowboys rushed only three. And boosted by the big pass, Texas ultimately came back to win.
But that was then.
Under first-year coordinator Glenn Spencer, Oklahoma State has finally shed the stigma of a bend-and-hope-not-to-break style this season. And now, heading into another Big 12 showdown with Texas this weekend, the Cowboys are playing defense at heights Stillwater hasn’t seen since the turn of the millennium.
“A lot of people can draw things up, but we’ve got good players that have allowed us to do some things we haven’t done in the past around here,” Spencer said. “Bottom line, we couldn’t do the things we’re doing if we didn’t have good players.”
The Cowboys certainly have good players. And with Spencer’s new aggressive approach, the Pokes are shutting the opposition down for the first time in a long while.
Nationally, Oklahoma State ranks just 20th in scoring defense and 37th in total defense. But those numbers don’t give the Cowboys their due.
Because they play alongside a fast-paced offense, the Cowboys have to defend more plays than most defenses. That’s why “next-level” analytics such as “points per drive” and “yards per play” better underscore the Pokes’ defensive resurgence behind Spencer.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cowboys rank sixth in the country in fewest points per drive allowed. They also rank ninth in yards per play allowed. Dating back to 2010, Oklahoma State hasn’t finished in the top 40 in either category.
Yet even some of the more traditional numbers suggest a steep upward trend.
The Pokes rank in the top 10 nationally in takeaways (ninth), third down defense (sixth) and red zone defense (ninth).
Put all that together, and it’s not difficult to see why the Cowboys have surged back into the Big 12 title race after an early-season loss at West Virginia. Only, for the first time in the Mike Gundy era, it isn’t the offense leading the charge.
“We’re not sitting back and letting offenses attack us,” senior safety Daytawion Lowe said. “We’re attacking them.”
The last time an Oklahoma State defense was on the attack, Rob Ryan was its defensive coordinator. Since Ryan bolted for the NFL in 2000, the Cowboys have shuffled through several coordinators to little avail.
Oklahoma State’s top defensive effort came behind Bill Young in 2011, when the Cowboys captured their first Big 12 title. The Pokes’ bending defense surrendered points and yards in droves. But they countered by leading the country in takeaways, setting up Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon with short fields.
Yet last season, the defense broke more than it bent. And the Cowboys closed out the regular season getting gashed by Oklahoma and Baylor, prompting Young to step down and Gundy to make another change.
Gundy had always looked outside the program for offensive coordinators, bringing in Dana Holgorsen, Todd Monken, and, most recently, Mike Yurcich all the way from Division II Shippensburg.
But to resurrect his defense, Gundy looked within, and promoted Spencer from linebackers coach to coordinator.
“I liked his demeanor, his style of coaching, how he dealt with his players,” Gundy said. “He’s a very smart coach.”
Gundy also liked Spencer’s plan for a defensive turnaround. No longer would the Cowboys rush three on critical downs. Nor would they play their corners 10 yards off the ball due to the fear of getting beat deep.
“We talked about that the first meeting we had,” Spencer said. “To do that, you can get exposed really fast. They’re getting challenged every day, because of things we as a defensive staff are asking them to do. But play in, play out, we also wanted them to feed on that.”
“We’re challenging the receivers,” Peterson said. “And that aggressiveness has really allowed everything to come together.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the defense has fed on Spencer’s assertive approach.
“The effort and excitement is everywhere -- guys want to make plays,” senior middle linebacker Caleb Lavey said. “No one wants to sit back and let someone else make a play. We have 11 guys on defense that are hungry and want to make big plays.”
No one has played with more hunger than Lavey, who has gone from Bedlam goat, to the short list for Big 12 defensive player of the year.
Last year, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell ran through Lavey for a goal-line touchdown to send the game to overtime, where the Sooners prevailed.
This year, Lavey has become the cornerstone of Spencer’s defense, leading the Cowboys in tackles and tackles-for-loss.
“A lot of them like him have been through those storms, those valleys,” said Spencer, who has had the Cowboys meet as a defense more than in the past to help build unity and accountability.
“I’ve been around and seen them, heard them and felt them get beat up, unwarranted in my opinion in a lot of cases. I just wanted to work so hard for them to achieve some success and some realization of their hard work.”
That hard work is finally coming to a realization. And Saturday, the Cowboys have a chance to show just how far they’ve come since Ash’s fourth-down pass.
“Coach Spencer has given us that identity,” Lowe said. “This last stretch, that’s going to be the real test.
“But we’re on our way.”