STILLWATER — Playing opposite the nation’s highest-scoring offense, there always seem to be questions about whether the defense can hack it.
Heading into Saturday night’s Big 12 opener against No. 12 Texas (3-0), the Cowboys have put together a thoroughly mixed case on whether they’re able to stop anyone. In two home games against inferior competition, Oklahoma State (2-1) has been downright dominant. In between, Arizona romped for 636 yards in a 59-38 upset that knocked OSU out of the Top 25.
Next comes a chance for a measure of redemption.
The Longhorns are coming off their highest scoring output in seven years in a 66-31 win at Mississippi and rank seventh in the nation in scoring, 13th in rushing and 16th in total offense.
The Cowboys say they’re up to the challenge.
“We want to show that we’re one of the better defenses in the Big 12,” linebacker Caleb Lavey said. “After the Arizona game, a lot of people started to doubt our defense. We’re jumping back and we’re fighting back. We’re going to show that we’re hungry and that we’re ready to go out and prove it.”
Oklahoma State’s defense thrived in a bend-but-don’t-break style last season, ranking 107th in the country in yards allowed but making up for it by leading the nation in takeaways. When an opponent threatened, the Cowboys had an uncanny ability to force a fumble or intercept a pass at the key moment.
It hasn’t happened yet this season, although the opportunities have been limited. Oklahoma State shut out Savannah State in its opener and kept Louisiana-Lafayette off the board two weeks ago until an injury to backup cornerback Devin Hedgepeth in the third quarter left a receiver wide open for a 73-yard touchdown. By then, OSU was up 44-0.
The key stop never came against Arizona, which rallied from a 14-0 deficit to win.
“I’ve been playing with these guys for a long time and I think we’re pretty good — better than people think we are,” cornerback Justin Gilbert said. “I think we’ll make our statement this weekend going up against a good offense and trying to hold them to no points on the board, and trying to live up to those expectations,” he added. “We’ll see how we do.”
An off week may have come at just the right time for Oklahoma State, which used some of the extra time to prepare for a Texas offense that’s built around a powerful running game that provides openings for quarterback David Ash. Defensive coordinator Bill Young compared it to preparing to face Stanford, but there was a month to get ready for that in the Fiesta Bowl last January.
“It’s so much different than anything that we’ve worked on so far this year because they’re a power running football team. They’ll give you multiple sets, they’ll bring in a tackle to play tight end, there’ll be unbalanced lines and a tremendous amount of shifts and motions before the snap that you have to prepare for,” Young said. “It’ll be a lot to digest and get ready to play.”
It’ll the latest measuring stick for a defense trying to show it can be consistently stingy.
“We’ll know a lot more after this game,” coach Mike Gundy said. “Obviously, we played very well in the last game against Louisiana-Lafayette but we’re going to face a team with more speed, more depth, more agility in space.
“I would say this would be the best opportunity for us to find out where we are as a defense.”
The Cowboys believe the problems against Arizona, which was shut out in its last game at Oregon, were an anomaly. A couple defensive players missed the game due to injuries, and the Cowboys set a school record for penalties while committing four turnovers.
“It was Murphy’s Law,” defensive end Cooper Bassett said. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”
Defenders got constructive criticism from their coaches and less-than-constructive criticism from fans and friends on Twitter and Facebook for a week before a better performance against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“Sometimes whenever you get told how good you are all of the time, you just need to get kicked in the butt. Unfortunately when we did, we lost and we lost pretty badly,” Bassett said.
As good as that last outing was, the players all know that the good feelings will wash away if Texas lights up the scoreboard.
“I think we’re really good,” safety Daytawion Lowe said. “We get a chance to prove that on Saturday.”