OSU football: Surprise! Jim Knowles' defense is carrying the Cowboys
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Cowboys arrive on the banks of the Monongahela River without their quarterback, thumb surgery having ended Spencer Sanders’ season.
But never fear. OSU’s defense made the trip for the Saturday game against West Virginia.
If you’re waiting for the punch line, you haven’t been paying attention. The 21st-ranked Cowboys have changed their calling card. The high-flying offenses that have defined OSU football for more than a decade? Not so soaring in 2019.
But the Cowboys are 7-3 because Jim Knowles’ defense has turned stingy in his second season as the OSU defensive coordinator. Don’t believe it? The Cowboys are ninth in Big 12 offensive efficiency for conference games but second in defensive efficiency.
“I've been proud of Jim,” Mike Gundy said. “Everybody knows it's tough to play defense in this league.”
Glenn Spencer’s OSU’s defenses were mostly solid in his five seasons as coordinator. But Gundy fired Spencer after the 2017 season, in favor of Knowles coming from the ACC’s Duke, and when the Cowboys dipped to eighth in Big 12 defensive efficiency last season, the switch in coordinators seemed a dubious decision.
But Knowles persevered, his new 3-3-5 alignment has started to take hold and defenders like Malcolm Rodriguez, Amen Ogbongbemiga and Kolby Harvell-Peel are starting to get a few headlines normally reserved for the likes of Chuba Hubbard, Tylan Wallance and Sanders.
Only Hubbard is left from that trio, and the Cowboys might have to ride defense Saturday against West Virginia, which is rejuvenated with new quarterback Jarrett Doege, a Bowling Green transfer.
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“I’m always optimistic,” Knowles told me over the summer. “You have to be, to be a defensive coordinator in the Big 12, or you’ll end up on the streets. It’s a hard job.”
After OSU’s victory over Kansas last week, Knowles said, “You gotta have confidence in what you do. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Oklahoma State and go against the best (offenses) in the country … is because I really wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to get out of a comfort zone.”
Big 12 offenses will make you uncomfortable. Baylor did that to the Cowboys a few weeks ago. The Bears hit OSU with a batch of home run plays. Gundy chalked that up to a dubious scheme — OSU played more man-to-man that day and got burned — and said Knowles was flexible enough to ditch such a strategy.
“At some point, we all have an issue of changing things,” Gundy said. “We’re creatures of habit. We get on something we like and we stick with it. We all agreed it would be best to go in a little different direction. And that’s a great sign for Jim, because it’s difficult for coaches to say, ‘hey, I need to make a little bit of a change.’”
Since then, OSU has held Iowa State, TCU and Kansas to eight touchdowns combined, which is a sure ticket to victory in the Big 12.
Gundy says the defensive adjustment from one style to another takes longer than you assume.
“We had so much talent last year, it was just (not) knowing what we was supposed to do was killing us,” said Ogbongbemiga, a junior linebacker. “This year, it’s a year into the system, it’s just faster. It’s allowed me to make more plays.”
And moving in the right direction defensively. Over the years, the Cowboys became nationally relevant and Big 12 contenders by combining solid defense with explosive offense. Even if OSU has only the former Saturday against West Virginia, defense might be enough.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.