All of the talk around this virtual town is about the surprising offensive struggles and who our starting quarterback and tailbacks should be. While there are valid and informative discussions to be had, most of it stems from the depressing fact that, no matter what, we likely won't be seeing the high octane offense we've become accustomed to at any point this season. But instead of moping around about it and placing limitations on this team based on some offensive deficiencies, why not look at the bright side: Oklahoma State has one of the best defenses in the country.
And this is not just a bend-but-don't-break unit that makes due by forcing turnovers. No, this is a much scarier group, one that can force turnovers (16 takeaways and 12 INTs thus far, both tied for sixth in the nation) and plays sound, disciplined defense that gets off the field by covering well and finishing plays when given the opportunity. This is a defense that has good personnel, solid sub-packages and a great scheme/coaching behind it, evident by a ranking as high as fifth in the country by some advanced metrics. In other words, in a down year for the offense, Glenn Spencer's defense has stepped up in a huge and necessary way, upholding Oklahoma State as a Big 12 contender despite uncertainty at critical positions on offense.
Against TCU, the Cowboys were completely in sync defensively, executing their coverages and their run fits extremely well. Upon reviewing the film, I saw high level play at each level of the defense. The defensive line was stout in the run game, kept contain on Trevone Boykin and actually pushed the pocket a few times, which has been rare for them this season. The linebackers hit their gaps all game long and were solid in pass coverage. And the defensive backs made punishing and effective tackles all game long, preventing TCU from getting any yards after the catch on short throws.
The most interesting thing about how Oklahoma State chose to defend TCU was how they used strong side linebacker Shaun Lewis. The Horned Frogs run a spread offense and were in the pistol with four wide (balanced alignment and trips) for the majority of this game, which is a formation that can force some teams to play their nickel packages a lot in order to cover all of the receiving threats. But instead of doing so, Spencer chose to stay in his base 4-3 look for almost every first and second down, only inserting his sub packages (some nickel and dime) on third downs, and asked Lewis to man up on receivers, play some zone coverage and provide support when possible in the running game while lining up far off the ball (almost as a DB).
It was a lot to ask for, but Lewis stepped up and got the job done, and that's where this breakdown of OSU's stout performance against an admittedly subpar offense begins.
[Note: I only included plays in the first half in this breakdown, because if I added anymore GIFs I'm certain SBNation's servers would have exploded.]
Play 1: 2 yard rush by Trevone Boykin
On the first play of the game we get a glimpse of what Lewis is going to be asked to do. As you can see, he's spread out far away from the box, playing a QB spy, zone coverage hybrid to the wide side of the field, presumably to cover quick hitting in cutting routes and to help set the edge on runs that come his way. The other star of this game in my eyes was strong safety Shamiel Gary. This was also Gary's most common alignment on Saturday afternoon, looking right in at the slot receiver. Anything that got behind Lewis or that was thrown as Lewis attacked a run fake was Gary's responsibility to clean up, and as you'll see, he did a tremendous job of that.
On this play, OSU's combination of man coverage with some zone support from their linebackers is going to blow up the quick hitting pass play for Boykin. Defensive end Tyler Johnson obliterates the running back in pass protection with a swim move, forcing Boykin to scramble up the middle, and weakside linebacker Ryan Simmons, who occasionally played on the strongside in this game as Lewis lined up allover the place, makes a sharp read to release from coverage and makes a strong tackle.
Play 2: 3 yard rush by Waymon James
On this play, TCU is not using a stacked alignment for their receivers, so it's easier to see where OSU intends Gary and Lewis to line-up. Once again, Gary is giving a man look on the slot receiver and Lewis is going to squat at the hash on the wideside of the field and play a joker role.
Here the Horned Frogs appear to be running a mid-line read-option where Boykin is reading our defensive tackle Calvin Barnett, but it's also possible that Barnett simply blew TCU's left guard off the ball and the intention was not to let him into the backfield freely. Either way, the result is an inside zone handoff. Watch how Lewis flies in from the far hash to wrap up the running back while mike linebacker Caleb Lavey knives to the point of attack and finishes the play. James Castleman also deserves credit here for tossing his man aside. These kinds of efforts explain why the Cowboys are ranked as the seventh best defensive team in the country against the run according to Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings.
Play 3: 2 yard pass to Waymon James
The Cowboys cap off a short and successful drive for their defense with a dime look, putting six defensive backs on the field to complement their four down lineman and Lewis in the middle. Oklahoma State is in man here and I'd say it's a cover one robber look, with man by their four defensive backs as well as man coverage for Lewis while one safety roams deep (Gary) and the other roams short/intermediate (Lowe). Boykin makes the read and fires the quick out to the running back in the flat. He's open right away because of an awkward starting spot for third corner Tyler Patmon, but look at the Kansas transfer cover that ground in an instant to make a great open field play.
Play 1: 5 yard pass to Cam White
Here is what Boykin is seeing when Oklahoma State uses this defensive alignment. That is a pretty soft box and TCU actually has six blockers in on this play with a tight end on the left side of the line, although Lowe is about to creep down to make it crowded (normally you'd see the strongside backer - Lewis - follow the loaded side of the formation, but OSU didn't bother with that in this game).
TCU runs a packaged play here and Boykin's read is Lewis. If Lewis crashes from the outside to stop the run, he pulls the ball from the mesh point and fires a quick hitch to the slot. That's what's going to happen here, but watch how Gary makes sure TCU gets nothing more than a modest gain by using his instincts to pick up on the play and making a strong tackle.
Play 2: 12 yard rush by B.J. Catalon
The Horned Frogs are going to make the Cowboys pay for moving Lewis around on this play. They load the right side of the formation on the short side of the field with two tight ends on the line of scrimmage and run another inside zone handoff (could be a read-option again keying on Lewis, as well). Cornerback Kevin Peterson doesn't set the edge here and Simmons doesn't fill the right gap initially, which gives the running back some space to get up the field. It could have been an even bigger play if Gary didn't take a great angle to clean it up by forcing the ball to the sidelines.
Play 3: 3 yard rush by B.J. Catalon
Here is a look at how Oklahoma State aligned their defense when TCU used a trips formation with four wideouts on the field. They still cheated Lewis over and had Gary aligned over a slot receiver, but they also had Lavey cheat over some as well, potentially to keep Boykin from keeping it on a zone read. This isn't an unfavorable box for TCU to run at, and they do so and their center actually does a good job firing out at Simmons to get a block. But look at Castleman make a play. He's as good as anyone in the conference at making these one armed tackles against the run and he's having a great junior season.
Play 4: 4 yard rush by B.J. Catalon
This is essentially the same play as the one that they picked up 12 yards on just a couple of plays prior, with two tight ends on the end of the line on the short side of the field, as TCU looked to attack Simmons and Peterson. But Peterson does a good job setting the edge here, and Gary comes in from the secondary to make the tackle.
Here is a better look at Peterson engaging the H-back and forcing the running back to hit the inside gap, where Gary met him almost instantaneously.
Play 2: 5 yard pass to Cam White
Here again we see a packaged play by the Horned Frogs where Boykin appears to be reading Lewis as he crashes towards the line and pulls the ball back to hit the quick hitch. Though it does result in a first down, look at Gary getting there in the blink of an eye again and making a great tackle. Someone show this film to the Texas DBs. Or better yet, don't.
Play 3: Pass incomplete to David Porter
TCU goes with a playfake here, attempting to get Lewis off that far hash, where he in perfect position to play inside of the quick slant from the slot. Lewis cheats run again here, although not as much as the previous few plays, and there is a bit of a throwing window here. But look at Gary dive down on the route in man coverage to make a perfect play on the ball.
Play 1: Boykin sacked for a loss of five by Tyler Johnson
When the opposition isn't throwing the ball on one or even no step drops as they've done a lot against OSU this season (such is life in a spread-heavy conference, particularly one with a lot of QBs that can't stretch the field and need these quick throws) and Tyler Johnson, the converted linebacker that is starting at defensive end this season, is given some time to get after the quarterback, he's been quite good this season (he leads the team in sacks with four and tackles for loss with eight).
Here Shaun Lewis does a good job of covering the slot receiver on the out route, which is one of Boykin's primary (if not his only) read. As he scans the rest of the field, Johnson dances around the left tackle, forcing Boykin to scramble out of the pocket, but gets up off the ground just in time to bring Boykin down before he could do any damage with his legs.
Play 1: No gain rush by Waymon James
TCU is going to run the triple option here with Boykin reading the backside defensive end - true freshman Emmanuel Ogbah. Ogbah is going to sit here, an indication that OSU's gameplan for this contest was to force the handoff each time, trusting the interior of their defensive rather than letting Boykin get into space.
Look at the carnage that takes place. Castleman, Simmons and Gary are all in the gap that the back is trying to run through, and as he tries to break it outside, Gary and a swarm of OSU defenders pile on him before he can gain a yard.
Play 2: 10 yard reception by B.J. Catalon
When the Horned Frogs went five wide, OSU went to a quarters defense, with Gilbert and Peterson covering the outside fourths and Gary and Lowe covering the seams. Underneath, Simmons, Lavey and Lewis all dropped into hook zones about 10 yards down the field. TCU used route concepts to beat OSU here, as they ran some four of their receivers up past the sticks and left the flanker on a Z Cross pattern or a square in, exploiting the vacated space underneath for a first down.
Play 3: Boykin intercepted by Daytawion Lowe
Gary Patterson has to be sick about this play. TCU is going to beat Oklahoma State's coverage and their overreaction to their run-heavy playcalling here. With trips left, Lewis and Lavey are once again cheating far outside, leaving Simmons as the only linebacker in the box until Daytawion Lowe walks in right before the snap. Lowe either guesses run or the call was for him to play it all the way, but he vacates the middle of the field, leaving it wide open for TCU's inside slot receiver to run a slant just behind Lavey and in front of Gary.
Luckily for the Pokes, just as Boykin gets ready to toss a potential big play, Castleman throws up his arms, batting the ball into the air, which then falls into the hands of Lowe. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good (great rush by Ohbah here, by the way).
Play 2: Boykin intercepted by Justin Gilbert
I'll finish on this beauty. Spencer is going to throw all kinds of stuff at TCU on this play. On the surface, it appears to be cover one, with Lowe as the deep safety and Gary as the slot corner. The good stuff comes upfront. Spencer calls for a double X stunt with Simmons and Lavey crossing at the snap and attacking. Meanwhile, Tyler Johnson is going to act as a joker, peeling off his defensive end spot and dropping into zone coverage in the middle of the field, where he's clearly comfortable after being converted from linebacker (this reminded me of some of the stuff the Falcons do with Kroy Biermann).
The pressure doesn't get to Boykin, but Johnson's presence in the middle of the field closes a potential throwing window to the slot receiver on an in cut, forcing Boykin to heave it up to the deep post, which Gilbert had all the way in man coverage.
I know there are some big questions worth talking about in regards to Oklahoma State's offense right now, but rather than focusing on what we haven't seen from our offense, let's praise our defense from keeping us in the hunt for a conference championship.
And, looking forward, once the Cowboys get their offense back into gear, as they inevitably will, Yurcich's gang may have a long-term dancing partner with Glenn Spencer's defense. Although keeping up this level of play will be an impossible task next season as we are set to lose Lewis, Lavey, Barnett, Johnson, Gary, Lowe and Gilbert to graduation, Spencer has coached this team up extremely well and his schemes are also an encouraging sight for a unit that hasn't stood out from the pack over the past few years.