How OSU’s Defense is Keeping the Cowboys in the Big 12 Title Race

October 19, 2021

Oklahoma State is 6-0, one of two in-state pillars currently propping the Big 12 up on the national stage, and the Cowboys are doing it in a way they never have.

Good defense is not unheard of in Stillwater. Talk like that would summon the ghosts of the 2013 or 2011 squads. But the difference in 2021 is that this team is getting it done without an elite (or at least really good) offense to support it. How long that can be sustained remains to be seen, but the way Jim Knowles’ group has consistently saved the day is impressive.

We’ve talked about points per drive in the past. This metric, courtesy of BCF, is about the best single stat (in my opinion) for determining the effectiveness of an offense or a defense. How much does a team score (or allow) per possession, minus garbage time and end of half? (This stat also excludes FCS games.)

This might be a shock but, so far, OSU’s offense hasn’t taken great advantage of its possessions, and OSU’s defense has.

Here’s a look at the Big 12’s offenses by PPD, with the ones OSU has locked down crossed off the list.

Offense Off. PPD Rank
Oklahoma 3.35 8
Texas Tech 3.35 7
Texas 3.34 9
Iowa State 3.12 15
TCU 3.11 16
Baylor 2.84 28
Kansas State 2.43 45
Oklahoma State 1.92 83
West Virginia 1.9 85
Kansas 1.47 111

Even after OSU held Texas to 24 points, its second-lowest scoring output of the year, the Longhorns are still in the Top 10 in points per drive. Up next is a road test against another Top 15 PPD offense in Iowa State, and the Cowboys still have Texas Tech and Oklahoma on their slate. That’s still a lot of firepower defend, but I’ve decided to quit doubting this defense until it gives me good reason.

Here’s why.

Defense Def. PPD Rank
Oklahoma State 1.38 12
Iowa State 1.54 18
Baylor 1.71 32
Kansas State 2.41 80
Texas 2.49 86
West Virginia 2.49 87
Oklahoma 2.54 91
Texas Tech 2.86 112
TCU 3.27 121
Kansas 4.46 130

The Cowboys are still on pace to finish in the same ballpark as those previously mentioned stellar Gundy defenses. The 2013 group landed at 1.31 points per drive allowed and ranked sixth nationally. (This stat is only available back to 2007.)

For a complete picture, and to illustrate how an average (or less) offense could end up wasting Jim Knowles’ genius, here is the league by Net PPD.

Net Net PPD Rank
Iowa State 1.57 7
Baylor 1.12 16
Texas 0.85 29
Oklahoma 0.81 30
Oklahoma State 0.54 43
Texas Tech 0.49 46
Kansas State 0.02 64
TCU -0.16 77
West Virginia -0.59 91
Kansas -2.99 130

How about the Cyclones averaging more than entire net point than the Cowboys per possession?

To this point, OSU is winning all these games by less than nine points per game, which leaves the margins razor-thin if the Cowboys continue to test fate and not support their defense with at least some more consistent scoring. Maybe Kasey Dunn has a couple more trick plays on the ready. Give me a triple-reverse, a hook-and-ladder, the Statue of Liberty, I don’t care.

The saving grace for OSU’s offense so far is that — despite not finding a way to score in bunches as of yet — the Cowboys are sustaining drives. The Pokes lead the Big 12 (and rank 36th nationally) in total time of possession, and that’s with Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all having played an extra game. Now if they could find a way to end more of those drives in the end zone to take some of the pressure off of their D.

2009 vs. 2021

An interesting comparison for this year’s team, at least from a big picture statistically, is the 2009 Cowboys. They, along with the 2014 team and this year’s squad (currently), make up the just three Gundy teams to average less than 30 points per game. But that defense was underrated in 2009, averaging 1.54 PPD allowed. Only the vaunted 2013 unit was stingier across an entire year.

That 2009 group, sans a dismissed Dez Bryant, didn’t live up to its ceiling offensively but still finished 9-4. You could probably draw some other loose comparisons between the two teams like Zac Robinson to Spencer Sanders being similar style QBs.

Personnel issues notwithstanding — if you stepped back — 9-4 feels like a best-case scenario for a team that struggles to score in the 30s consistently in the Big 12. And maybe that’s where the Cowboys will land. Maybe better. But I don’t want to think about how ugly that W-L number looks today without OSU’s defensive heroics.

This is the type of defense that can win you a Big 12 title with, and more. Let’s hope the offense can figure things out in time so it’s not wasted.

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