The Cowboys under Mike Gundy have made their name as a high-scoring posse that shoots first and defends later, a character that fits nicely into the perceived wild, wild west of the Big 12.
But halfway through 2021 — as one of two top 10 teams representing the league — when OSU is mentioned nationally, it’s the Pokes’ defense that’s become their calling card. Maybe Knowles is altering the perception of the Big 12.
There’s a tenet in the business world that a strong leader seeks to hire someone smarter than them. This week Mike Gundy admitted that he’s followed a similar philosophy for some years. But his most recent search for a defensive coordinator landed him a mad scientist.
“… I realized that if I hired somebody that’s smart, and they’ll be loyal to the program, they’ll figure out what to do and how to be successful,” said Gundy. “So when I came across Coach Knowles during the interview process, I didn’t know that he has an Ivy League grad until he got here. I just knew his history and what he had done. And then I realized he was an Ivy League grad. And then when he came in and interviewed, there was a little bit of mad scientist side to him, you know, Dexter’s Laboratory, do you ever see that? Do your kids watch that? Kind of that side to him.”
Just two weeks before Halloween, that mad scientist has cobbled together a monster that’s kept the Pokes undefeated.
At 6-0 and coming off a dominant second half against one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation in Texas, the Cowboys are no fluke. They’ve held their last four opponents (Boise State, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas) to at least nine points below their current scoring average. That leads into OSU ranking No. 12 in the nation in points per drive allowed.
Gundy said Knowles goes to his office (let’s call it his lab), shuts the door for 4-5 hours and emerges with a plan that works on Saturdays. But most of all, it’s his ability to remain calm and adjust on the fly in real time that sets him apart from other DCs.
“Where he is a leg ahead or above other people on game day is as a play caller,” said Gundy. “He’s fantastic. It’s just a fact.”
If Knowles has a calling card it’s his ability to mix up and disguise his coverages and keep the QB guessing. That’s resulted in his team being adept at getting off the field on third and fourth downs. OSU ranks ninth nationally (leading the Big 12) allowing conversions on 28.7 percent of opponents’ third downs. OSU also leads the league in fourth-down defense, allowing only three conversions in nine tries.
“On 4th-and-3 on Saturday [against Texas], he dropped eight,” said Gundy. “I mean you guys probably saw it from up there. Who drops eight on 4th-and-3? He dropped eight and confused the quarterback. Quarterback trembled, and we tackled him. I wouldn’t have. I would have blitzed, but I’m just saying, that’s why he wins it. He’s smarter than me.”
Knowles preferred to put the praise on his veteran leaders, some of which have now spent four years in his system.
“We have enough now in the package that — and the guys understand it well enough to throw some curveballs and make some changeups,” said Knowles. “Particularly in the fourth quarter, things that we hadn’t done or shown a lot in the past and that’s credit to the players. They understand the system. They like the pressure. They’re just really enjoying that and the culture that we have.”
Knowles exudes a type of confidence that must be contagious with his players. Calm, but not cocky. This week he was asked if he would have ever believed that his defense could hold a prolific offense like the Longhorns’ to zero first downs over its last six possessions.
“I mean, sure,” answered Knowles with a smile. “I expect us to stop them every time we’re out there. That’s just how we have to think. But it’s a beautiful thing when it comes all together. That’s why we play the game, but I expect our guys to rise up in those circumstances.”
The Big 12’s perception as a high-scoring league isn’t going anywhere just yet. And the Cowboys still have some potent offenses left on their slate — starting with Iowa State this weekend — so it would be nice if OSU’s offense could figure out how to put two halves together for the first time this season. But if the Cowboys need to lean our their D, and I have a feeling that at some point they will, it’s nice to have the mad scientist in his lab.
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