Examining the roots of Oklahoma State's defensive breakthrough

Ian Boyd

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Heading into the 2018 season when Mike Gundy decided to move away from Glenn Spencer it closed a chapter that had gone rather poorly for Oklahoma State football. While the Cowboys had strung together three consecutive 10-win seasons in the “Mason Rudolph throws post routes to James Washington” era, they never beat Oklahoma or won the Big 12. The reason? Defense.

Check out the last 10 years of Oklahoma State defense leading up to today:

OSU defensive decade and CB.jpg

The easiest thing to spot here is that Oklahoma State, despite an initial positive blip in 2013, went from regularly fielding strong defenses to match their offenses to falling off a cliff under Glenn Spencer. This year they’ve finally restored their ability to play effective defense. If the offense continues to improve with Spencer Sanders at the helm, this has the makings of being their best team since the 2011 unit.

So what’s the difference? Did Jim Knowles figure out how to stop Big 12 offenses? Are they going to be exposed later in the year? Or is it something else? It’s hard to tease out all the variables, but I think there are some consistent themes worth exploring.

The Bill Young to Glenn Spencer handoff

Bill Young’s defense at Oklahoma State was a straightforward, 4-3 quarters scheme with some fire zones mixed in. They didn’t play press-coverage outside but focused on keeping everything in front of them and attacking up front. It was really fairly similar to what Chris Ash has been tasked with bringing to Texas save for the fact the Pokes didn’t play press-man coverage.

They were decidedly not flashy, focusing on sound, “bend don’t break” defense. They had very solid play at linebacker (which was Spencer’s group). Yet after 2012, Gundy fired Young and promoted Glenn Spencer to the top position because Young was old or something. Initially this looked brilliant as Spencer lead a senior-filled unit in 2013 to the highest heights of modern Cowboy defense.

One of their adjustments was to play more man coverage, which they used to shut down Baylor in Stillwater. If not for their struggles on offense early they might have won the Big 12 rather than Baylor. They helped squash Mack Brown’s comeback run with a 38-13 romp in Austin but came up short at the end of the year in Bedlam, 33-24.

Then everyone graduated on defense and they completely fell apart and never recovered. It’s hard not to believe the loss of Justin Gilbert was the biggest factor here. He was a 6-0, 202 pound no. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft who ran a 4.35 40. In 2013 he had seven interceptions, seven more pass break-ups, and two pick-6s. That earned him a first team All-Big 12 nod, a unanimous All-American placement, and an invitation as a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. His replacements would not come close to approaching his athleticism or collegiate accolades.

Spencer had some smart, tough units in the middle post 2013 but they often lacked space force components. They had a few fantastic edge-rushers like Emmanuel Ogbah but never had another Gilbert in the secondary and occasionally had holes at safety as well.

After failing for three years in a row to capitalize on Mason Rudolph and James Washington due to a defense that couldn’t hold Lincoln Riley under 50, Mike Gundy finally pulled the plug on Glenn Spencer.

Does Jim Knowles best?

The process Gundy undertook with the next hire was evidently to go find someone who’d shown consistent results without high level recruiting. Obviously that makes a fair amount of sense. How can you expect to recruit at a high level at Oklahoma State? Particularly vis a vis your cross-state rival, Texas, or the Texas private schools with increasing budgets?

What matters is training up units with consistent depth of players with good fundamentals and knowledge of your scheme at all spots. Then of course, you need some strategy for finding great athletes to man the space force positions, same as everywhere else.

Knowles brought a heralded “4-2-5” approach to Stillwater, contrasted with Young and Spencer’s 4-3 which were really 4-2-5’s as well. It turned out what that meant was Knowles would play the nickel/strong/field safety wide of the slot receiver in outside leverage both in his brand of quarters as well as in the cover 3 schemes he maintained from the Spencer era.

In year’s one and two Knowles received “the baptism” on multiple occasions. Kliff Kingsbury, Lincoln Riley, and even Matt Rhule taught him many painful lessons about how in the Big 12, teams play pass-first and look for opportunities to isolate and attack your weakest personnel in space. Often in the vertical passing game.

After a couple of seasons faring no better than Spencer, a breakthrough has happened in 2020. The Cowboys are playing really high level defense of a caliber they haven’t been able to sniff since Gundy fired Young.

This happens to coincide with a leap from cornerback Ro Williams, who’s now a fourth year starter for the Cowboys.

Check out this two play sequence from the Cowboys against West Virginia:



Play-action and then an RPO both destroyed by the ‘Pokes playing bracket coverage on the slot and press-man coverage on the outside receivers. On the second clip they bring a 5-man pressure, in the first clip it’s just a normal four-man rush with Trace Ford off the edge. The favorite Big 12 offensive strategy is to deploy three receivers and an ancillary (fullback/tight end hybrid) and use the ancillary to suck in defenders on run actions (RPO or play-action) in order to isolate the receivers downfield on defensive backs in space.

Well if the outermost receivers are facing tight man coverage they can’t get quick separation against and the slot is getting bracketed, the RPO game becomes near impossible. The play-action game is a better bet but you might need to buy time for the receiver to execute a move to beat man coverage.

To thwart the play-action game, they often deploy Ford in creative fashions, lining up him as a middle linebacker before bringing him off the edge or through an inside gap. He’s usually rushing the passer but he doesn’t just work off the edge, they move him everywhere. “Crazy Cal” Bundage gets in the action as another mobile blitzing piece in their third down package.

It’s a set-up comparable to what the 2019 Oklahoma Sooners enjoyed when they were playing great defense by bringing pressure up front and then locking down receivers outside thanks largely to a leap from senior, multi-year starting cornerback Parnell Motley similar to what we’re seeing now from Ro Williams.

Here’s the question though...is this Knowles? Or a “Glenn Spencer in 2013” effect where the Cowboys just happen to have positionally sound players in the middle AND space force weapons at the same time for the first time since early in the decade? Spencer had good cornerback coaches like Van Malone, they played man coverage, they brought creative pressure packages, how much has really changed? How much of this is sustainable?

Cornerbacks coach Tim Duffie has been there since 2013 and been coaching the corners in particular since 2015. He’s had a few solid pupils, of which Ro Williams has been one for five years now. Is that success duplicative? Can they turn another good athlete into a lockdown corner with four to five years of experience every year? Or was this a one-off that won’t happen again until the next leap year? In 2021 will we see Oklahoma State fall off while another Big 12 team masters the formula of bringing multi-faceted pressure paired with a senior, lockdown cornerback?

For 2020 the Pokes are in phenomenal shape. The league’s outside receivers this season are not particularly dominant and especially on the teams most effective at protecting their quarterback and throwing it outside. Oklahoma and Texas are both struggling at outside receiver (Texas moreso than OU) and doing more of their damage throwing to slot receivers. Baylor can’t protect or throw outside, ditto Texas Tech. Iowa State lacks great play at outside receiver this year (obviously) and then didn’t even have a slot on the field against the Cowboys. Kansas State is stronger than those teams but starting a freshman quarterback.

It may be Oklahoma State has been able to follow Oklahoma’s 2020 formula in putting together a defense designed to stifle RPO/play-action spread offenses simply due to good timing. They happen to have a collection of strong, veteran tackles, linebackers, and safeties at the same time a senior cornerback put it all together and a 3-star gem pass-rusher (Trace Ford) came into his own. Sometimes all your cycles click at the same time and magic happens.

If I’m Mike Gundy, I don’t particularly care just yet, the championship is in reach...
 
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Bcshorn

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After reading this, I don’t like our o line chances against their pass rush.
 

stilesbbq

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I think if you give Rambo time for his route develop he can handle Ro Williams just fine
 

Ian Boyd

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I think if you give Rambo time for his route develop he can handle Ro Williams just fine
That's perhaps the question of the year. Maybe not Rambo in particular but the OU receivers over all.

That and K-State, whom everyone is still overlooking.
 
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stilesbbq

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Ironically similar to Herman, if Gundy cant win the Big12 this year I'm not sure if he will ever be able to do it. Good QB and great veteran skills players plus a defense full of upperclassmen and a down OU and Texas.

Gundy hates beating OU though
 

mibrooo

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Good write up on Ok State. I was really impressed with Spencer Sanders against Iowa State. Think he's going to give most teams not named Kansas State a lot of trouble.

@Ian Boyd I know we're talking defense here, but what do you think about Ok State's overall prospects for winning the Big 12? Depends on the OL?
 

Ian Boyd

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Good write up on Ok State. I was really impressed with Spencer Sanders against Iowa State. Think he's going to give most teams not named Kansas State a lot of trouble.

@Ian Boyd I know we're talking defense here, but what do you think about Ok State's overall prospects for winning the Big 12? Depends on the OL?
Pretty good. Probably need to beat Oklahoma in Jerry World, even if they win in Bedlam I'm not sure they can keep OU out of the title game.
 
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clayinva

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Pretty good. Probably need to beat Oklahoma in Jerry World, even if they win in Bedlam I'm not sure they can keep OU out of the title game.
I think the hole OU dug was way too deep to survive a Bedlam loss. If OU drops another game. K-State would only need to go 2-3 against their remaining schedule, and Iowa State would only need to go 3-2 against the rest of their schedule. Plausible but not too likely that both would stumble so badly. I still think Oklahoma is a good bet to make the CCG but just because I expect them to be rolling by the time of Bedlam.
 

Ian Boyd

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I think the hole OU dug was way too deep to survive a Bedlam loss. If OU drops another game. K-State would only need to go 2-3 against their remaining schedule, and Iowa State would only need to go 3-2 against the rest of their schedule. Plausible but not too likely that both would stumble so badly. I still think Oklahoma is a good bet to make the CCG but just because I expect them to be rolling by the time of Bedlam.
Okay, so then the obvious play for OSU is "beat em now so you don't have to beat em later." Same as I said for Texas heading into the RRS. Only thing is that it's in Norman this season, so the CCG might be the better bet.
 
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fox 520

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This sounds absolutely terrible for the good guys. We don't protect well and our receivers struggle to beat press coverage. Maybe we can run - oh wait. Nope.
Don't forgot also an inconsistent veteran QB whose passer efficiency rating has fallen 50% while facing the conference's lower ranked defenses.
 

patentjt

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doesn't Texas have a "veteran" defense too? I see upperclassmen all over the place but the results are not there
 

Justin Wells

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doesn't Texas have a "veteran" defense too? I see upperclassmen all over the place but the results are not there
Veteran? Yes. Experienced? Yeah. Coached-well w/o bad habits? No chance in hell.
 

apl817

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Okay, so then the obvious play for OSU is "beat em now so you don't have to beat em later." Same as I said for Texas heading into the RRS. Only thing is that it's in Norman this season, so the CCG might be the better bet.
Not that it matters because each year is new, but OSU has played much better in Norman than Stillwater going back like 20 years. Plus home field advantage isnt what it normally is.
 

Ian Boyd

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Not that it matters because each year is new, but OSU has played much better in Norman than Stillwater going back like 20 years. Plus home field advantage isnt what it normally is.
I guess health is the biggest thing. It doesn’t make sense to sandbag OU now and save it up for round 2, maybe in round 2 you’re missing Sanders again or some other crucial piece. Or maybe they are, who knows?

At any rate, beating them twice would be really tough.
 

clayinva

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That's perhaps the question of the year. Maybe not Rambo in particular but the OU receivers over all.

That and K-State, whom everyone is still overlooking.
Rambo has not been as good as I thought he would be this year (although nobody would hate him being on their team). I assumed he was simply overshadowed by Lamb, but he hasn't taken the next step. Mims on the other hand shows signs of wrecking a lot of defenses over the next few years - he's the illustration of the 5'11 and 175 guy who can create separation being more valuable than the NFL physical prototype who can't.

Oddly, I think Texas Tech might have the WR combo to stress OSU on the perimeter and crack the scheme, although more so with Bowman throwing the ball vs Colombi. If I were to pick a team to surprise OSU they might be it at this point. But I doubt they'll hold up on defense.

I'm not overlooking K-State! But I also think it's going to be a bit tougher to get some of the explosive plays we've relied on against Oklahoma State's team speed. Hopefully Coach Messingham can scheme out a couple of ways to isolate Deuce on some poor linebacker or will have a good plan in place for getting the ball to secondary targets if OSU commits two defenders to him consistently. I can see opportunity to get OSU having too many defenders out of the middle of the field with smart use of Vaughn, leaving Moore and Wheeler room to make plays over the middle, mixed with a couple of QB runs if the pass rush gets overly aggressive.
 

system poster

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Oddly, I think Texas Tech might have the WR combo to stress OSU on the perimeter and crack the scheme,
It worked last year, with Vasher going for 110 yards and a touchdown on 5 receptions and Ezukanma adding 92 and a touchdown on 3 receptions. But last year, Duffey was throwing the ball, and his arm is stronger than Colombi's. And most importantly Tech had two senior tackles that held up pretty well against the pass rush. Burger and Carde have been below average at tackle this year, and Carde was benched last game for a true freshman, Caleb Rogers. So we'll see how that goes...
 
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tholly

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Tul, WV, Kan, and Ia St....not enough there to convince me that the OkSt defense has grown a pair...I'll agree theyve improved. It's a significant down yr for offenses in the entire B12, None of the 3 theyve played would be considered even average in the modern B12 era