Underrated defense helps OSU to 5-0 start

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Most observers are expecting a lot of points Saturday night at Faurot Field -- a game that could resemble an Arena Football League shootout considering the explosive offenses of Missouri and Oklahoma State.

It's understandable why, considering some of the numbers coming into the game. The Tigers rank second in scoring and the Cowboys are third. Missouri's defense is 83rd overall in total defense and 114th in pass defense. Oklahoma State's is 114th in sacks and 116th in tackles for losses.

Even with those daunting indicators, OSU linebacker Patrick Lavine says he doesn't care what dire defensive predictions are floating around days before the game.

"That doesn't bother us. The defense is going to go out there and play as hard as we can regardless of what is being said," Lavine said. "We've progressed so much from day 1 to where we are now. We're building some confidence and I think we'll show it when we get our chance."

The Cowboys' improved defensive work has been one of the biggest surprises in OSU's 5-0 start that's its best since 2004.

The OSU defense went into a feeding frenzy in its 56-28 victory over Texas A&M, providing five first-half turnovers and three three-and-outs to spark the early knockout.

"Our staff has really done a good job in the last nine months of building on the success we had in the bowl game and bringing the team together and really making [sure] they understood what we were trying to accomplish Xs and Os wise," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "The players have rallied together in running to the football."

OSU's overall talent was expected to improve with the infusion of six junior college players before the season started. Only one cracked the Cowboys' starting lineup, but they have provided defensive coordinator Tim Beckman with some ready-made depth.

Defensive end Jeremiah Price, defensive tackles Swanson Miller and Chris Donaldson, linebacker Donald Booker and cornerback Maurice Gray all have cracked the two-deep roster as junior college transfers. And that's even after starting safety Lucien "The Punisher" Antoine, a transfer from Fort Scott Community College, was lost for the season with a knee injury in the Houston game.

"We signed a few junior college players who brought a little maturity in here and a little more team speed. And they've played hard," Gundy said. "The reason they've had some success is they've committed to a system and they've bought in. It's really helped our football team."

But the Cowboys haven't faced a challenge like they will from Missouri, which might have the nation's most multi-faceted offense. Chase Daniel is the fashionable favorite to win the Heisman after a blistering early start. Wide receiver/kick returner Jeremy Maclin is perhaps the nation's most explosive player. Tight end Chase Coffman leads all Big 12 tight ends with 6.6 catches per game. And sophomore tailback Derrick Washington ranks second in the conference in rushing and leads the nation in scoring.

"We definitely have a big challenge because they are one of the best teams in America," Lavine said. "They are successful in the spread offense and have some good players who can make big plays any time they touch the ball. But we have some talented players too and we'll be a good challenge for them."

The Oklahoma State defense has been keyed by Andre Sexton, a converted safety who plays a linebacker in Beckman's defense. Sexton produced 12 tackles and forced a fumble to key the A&M victory.

The attitude generated by the junior college players is one of the major reasons for OSU's defensive growth along with increased confidence in Beckman's defense in his second season at OSU, Sexton said.

"Players understand what is going on and I think that's helped us," Sexton said. "We're just going out and playing, not thinking about calls. Lucien and Booker had this tenacious attitude during the spring where they wanted to hit everything. And we kind of gravitated to that where we've been flying around, hitting people and having fun."

An upset would also signal that the Cowboys are legitimate contenders in a power-packed Big 12 South Division that currently has three teams ranked among the nation's top seven teams.

"A win would give our fans something to really be excited about," Sexton said. "Boone Pickens would be excited to see his investment is paying off. We can't be sold at 5-0. We have to keep progressing and getting better."