October 31, 2015 - Halloween.
The Cowboys were 7-0 heading into the meat of their schedule. They had shown some ingenuity on offense and squeaked out some close wins but it was defense that they hung their hat on. Several people (myself included) thought this might be the best and deepest defense in the Gundy era, headlined by a couple of NFL prospects at defensive end, some promising newcomers at tackle and deep rotations at linebacker and in the secondary.
We had good reason to be high on them. That defense gave up a hair over 316 yards per game on 4.44 yards per play. That defense was only allowing 18.85 points per game. They were aggressive and forced turnovers and routinely made crucial stops when it counted.
So what happened?
Halloween in Lubbock happened. This was the Pokes' first dose of a really good offense. Although the Cowboys came back and won in heroic fashion, they were getting an early start to that "November to Remember" in Big 12 play. Four of the last five teams that Oklahoma State would face featured dynamic offensive attacks. We knew that would be the case going in. So how did Oklahoma State step up to the challenge?
In the last five games of the season, Oklahoma State's defense gave up 588 yards per game and allowed a sloppy 6.85 yards per play ultimately leading to 43.2 points per game for the bad guys. That "bend, don't break" style we were accustomed to seeing from Spencer's group was now routinely giving up big play after big play and (at times) looked downright overwhelmed.
So let's see how this defense stacks up against those in recent history. Last week, we did a similar study on the Cowboy offense which you can read here.
(Important note: While I normally value points per drive to compare defenses from different teams and especially different conferences, we are comparing apples to apples here and that metric will not be used. Also, unless otherwise stated, all stats from previous Cowboy teams will include their bowl games.)
Just as Oklahoma State's offense has been known for its tempo and big numbers, the Cowboy defense has a reputation of getting after opposing QB's and causing turnovers. How does the 2015 squad compare to the past five teams? Well first off, this team leads the others in sacks thanks to the E-Man. Emmanuel Ogbah has 13.0 sacks leading the team total of 38 (with one game remaining). Last season was second in this list with the '14 squad handing out paper or plastic 33 times. Once again, Ogbah lead the team with 11.0.
The Turnover Battle
What about those turnovers? There is nothing quite like a takeaway to swing a game's momentum and take the heart out of an opponent. The Cowboys have prided themselves in winning the turnover battle in recent years, only finishing with negative marks in one of the last five seasons (2014). Through 12 games, this team would rank third in turnover margin behind only the 2013 and 2011 teams. Of course this stat includes turnovers against your team as well. This years' team has committed fewer turnovers (14) than any of the last six.
If we are looking at takeaways only, the '15 Cowboys drop to fourth with 27 (11 fumbles recovered and 16 interceptions). Even if you include the bowl game, the Cowboys would have to force six turnovers to tie the third place '13 team. The best team was the '11 Pokes who picked off 24 passes and forced 20 fumbles. Next was the '10 squad with 19 interceptions and 15 fumbles, followed by that '13 team with 21 interceptions and 12 fumbles.
Okay, so defense isn't just about turnovers. There are two key stats that need to be looked at when comparing these teams: 1st downs allowed and 3rd down conversion rates. Can you consistently get stops?
To date, the 2015 OSU team has allowed opponents 260 1st downs. That is good for second place in our study when you do not include post season play. The '13 Cowboys were first allowing only 258 1st downs through 12 games. Of course this stat is relative to how many plays a team defends. The '15 defense has been on the field for 932 plays which is second lowest through 12 games behind last years' team at 905.
To qualify even further, a team that runs a lot of plays on offense, will, in turn, run a lot on defense. Through 12 games, this years' team would rank fourth out of six in offensive plays ran at 902 behind 2012 (939), 2011 (930) and 2010 (921).
So where are we going with this? The second stat will help to put it in perspective. At what percentage does a team give up a 3rd down conversion? Good defenses get off the field on third down. The 2015 team is fifth, ahead of only the 2010 team in this list. They allow a team to move the chains 41.92% of the time on 3rd down which is good for 91st nationally and only fifth in the Big 12 this season. That doesn't bode well for our case.
So was this defense just overrated early due to a soft schedule or did they simply run out of gas down the stretch? I tend to think it may be a little bit of both. Let me just first say that this defense has players. They may be up at the top as far as an overall talent level. Ogbah is a bona fide game changer and you have other really good skill guys with Peterson, Burton, Jacobs, Sterns, etc.
The losses of Ryan Simmons and Jimmy Bean can't be ignored. That depth that was such a strength for OSU took a huge hit with their injuries. Other guys stepped up like Chad Whitener, who played pretty well but lacked the experience and leadership that Simmons brought. I would have really liked to see how OSU would have fared down the stretch had Bean been healthy. Ogbah is great but he is better with Bean, and vice versa.
Another point that gets brought up a lot is the number of plays the defense was on the field in that four game stretch leading into Bedlam. In those four games, the Cowboys played 368 plays on defense, averaging 92 per game. That's a tough haul for any team. 94 plays in Lubbock, followed by a ridiculous 110 against TCU and 104 against Baylor. The lone break was the 60 plays defended against Iowa State. But if you watched that game, it looked like anything but a "break" for the defense. They faced an underrated offensive line that had its way with OSU's front seven for big stretches of that game.
To put it in perspective, this was the second most plays in a four game stretch in the last six seasons. It fell just short of a stretch in 2011 where the Cowboys defended 370 plays against Baylor, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Iowa State. That was a team with a much more potent offense and two of those games weren't even close.
By the time this years' team got to Baylor and OU, the defense looked worn down, and consequently, gave up a number of big plays. Combine that with a hobbled Rudolph against Baylor and a what probably should have been a no-show in Bedlam, and it was just too much to overcome. The good news? The Cowboys have had a month to get fresh and healthy.
So here we are. The Pokes sit at 10-2, good for second place in the Big 12 and head into a Sugar Bowl match up with probably the most dynamic offense in the SEC. This defense has a chance to flex its muscle and go out with a bang. How will fresh legs and a contrast in conference styles translate on the field? We'll find out on Friday night.