Carlson: Why OSU football is getting comfortable winning with defense — and why you should, too
Look at the scoreboard during OSU’s game these past couple weeks, and you’re sure to have seen something different.
Points. Yards. All of them have been on the small side, and not just early in the game. Those diminutive digits continued deep into the season opener against Tulsa and the Big 12 opener against West Virginia.
Winning 16-7 and 27-13 is old school. Games were won that way in the 1950s. Games in the SEC still get won that way occasionally today, but that type of football has become passe almost everywhere else.
And in Stillwater where defense has some seasons seemed optional, seeing it is off putting.
“It’s completely different,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy acknowledged.
But right now, it’s working.
As the OSU offense deals with an ankle injury to starting quarterback Spencer Sanders — his availability for Saturday’s game at Kansas is unknown — it has sputtered. Replacement quarterback Shane Illingworth is a true freshman, and as solid as he’s been, the Cowboys haven’t felt comfortable throwing open the entire playbook.
They haven’t felt it necessary either.
OSU has won with defense.
It’s been a long time since the Cowboys could say that.
Sure, they’ve had good defenses, even in the past decade. The OSU defense in 2011 was stout. Ditto for 2013. But the Cowboys had high-powered offenses then, too, Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon leading the way in 2011, Clint Chelf and Josh Stewart doing the same in 2013. They scored a lot of points those years and probably would’ve still won games if the defense wasn’t all the great.
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You could say the same of the 1997 Cowboys. Good defense, but the Tony Lindsay-led offense was winning games.
You have to go back to the mid 1980s to find OSU defenses going out and winning ball games.
The 1985 defense held 10 of 12 opponents under 20 points, including the eventual national champion, OU. The Cowboys spent that whole season ranked in the top 20, and while Thurman Thomas had a big role in that, nothing was bigger than the defense.
But as good as that bunch was, the Cowboy defense was even more impactful the season before.
In 1984, OSU held all but one opponent to 17 points or less, including 12th-ranked Arizona State (three points), eighth-ranked Nebraska (17 points) and seventh-ranked South Carolina in the Gator Bowl (14 points).
While we only have a two-game sample size for this Cowboy defense, the ability to go out and win games is something OSU hasn’t seen often over the past three decades. It has been way more likely to have seen a defense losing games instead of winning them.
Amen Ogbongbemiga was a part of a couple of those shaky defenses early in his career. The fifth-year linebacker remembers thinking he didn’t always want it to be that way.
“I want to change that narrative,” he said. “I want to be the defense that people look on to win games, not holding their breath when we go out on the field.”
The OSU defense started to become that kind of defense late last season, and with so many starters and contributors returning this season, hopes were high that such performances could continue. But going into this season, the Cowboys knew nothing was promised.
“We can talk all we want about championships and conference titles and everything like that,” defensive lineman Brendon Evers remembers defenders saying among themselves, “but if we’re not putting in the work and we’re not winning on our side of the ball, it really means nothing.”
He believes the product of that preparation is what we’re now seeing.
And the Cowboy defense loves it.
“People perking up and sitting on the edge of their chairs when the defense is on the field,” Evers said, “is something we haven’t had truly in a while.”
Ogbongbemiga isn’t convinced it will continue. Not because he doesn’t believe the defense will continue playing at this level, but rather because he thinks it’s only a matter of time before the offense starts looking like Cowboy offenses usually do.
“And then people will start loving offense again and they’re gonna finally leave us alone,” he said with a hint of sarcasm. “But for the defense, we’re just gonna keep doing what we gotta do.
“If we gotta win the game, we will. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Nothing at all.
But it still feels different. Everyone feels it, even the head coach. Gundy admits this defense’s abilities have changed his coaching calculus. It has altered his game management and his offensive decisions.
“If the defense is playing good, on fourth-and-short, you punt,” Gundy said. “There’s been several fourth downs that we would have gone for it in the past years, but right now, we’re just punting and playing defense.”
The Cowboys are happy to do so.
That’s because they have had a defense that isn’t just stopping opponents — it is winning ball games.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.