Carlson: What happened to Oklahoma State's defense? Jim Knowles and Cowboys must find the answer
STILLWATER — Jim Knowles swears he wasn’t going to spend the hours after Saturday’s game laying in a dark room or sipping a stiff drink.
No one would’ve blamed him if he did.
What we saw Saturday in Stillwater was a blast from the past — and not in a good way. It was a game like Oklahoma State used to play, where the defense would give up lots of big plays and the offense would have to score a bunch of points and the Cowboys would have to hang on for dear life.
OSU 50, Texas Tech 44.
It was crazy, and for Knowles, it was unsettling.
“It’s not a good feeling because we’ve worked real hard to, when we do get points, to be able to put a game away,” the Cowboy defensive coordinator said. “I thought we had plenty of opportunities to put it away.
“But it just shows you how hard it is to win a Power 5 football game and how the balance of going from good to great … in one or two weeks, it really can take a step back.”
Remember when the defense was winning games for the Cowboys?
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Suddenly seems like a million years ago.
On a day OSU found a way to win — and that’s no small thing — there is an unsettling trend for the Cowboys. The defense has taken some serious steps back. Even though the defense is dealing with injuries, notably ones that sidelined defensive end Amadou Fofana and cornerback Rodarius Williams, it has regressed. No other way around it.
After giving up an average of only 20 points in its first five Big 12 games, OSU has given up more than 40 points the past two weeks.
Forty-one vs. OU.
Forty-four vs. Texas Tech.
Against the suddenly-surging Sooners, maybe you can understand those kind of numbers. But against the Red Raiders? These guys have only scored more than 30 points twice in Big 12 play this season.
Texas Tech scored six offensive touchdowns Saturday; it hadn’t scored that many in their last two games combined.
Most glaring were the big plays given up by the Cowboys. The Red Raiders have seven plays of 20-plus yards, including all six of their touchdowns. All of their scores came from outside the red zone.
(If you’re looking for a silver lining, the OSU defense didn’t allow any red-zone scores.)
“That was definitely like it used to be for us,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said of being in a high-scoring shootout. “For us, we haven’t been in that situation this year, so you just have to rally back.”
That’s not an easy thing, especially when you’re coming off a devastating loss to your in-state rival. The Cowboys easily could’ve let the Bedlam loss cost them again Saturday against the Red Raiders.
But the Cowboys talked this past week about the opportunities that still exist for them. While several things would have to break their way, they could still make the Big 12 title game.
Of course, they can't take advantage of other teams' slip ups if they don't win.
“We can’t control how the other teams play; we can control how we play,” Cowboy receiver Tylan Wallace said. “We just have to do our part.”
Even though it didn’t look the way the Cowboys would’ve liked, they managed to come out on the high side because they rallied. They got timely plays from the offense, including a 200-yard rushing game from Dezmon Jackson, playing in place of Chuba Hubbard and LD Brown, and a 100-yard receiving game from Wallace. They even got points from special teams; Jason Taylor II fielded an onside kick and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown.
“We’ve been able to win a bunch of games on defense this year,” Knowles said. “This game, we needed the team and the offense and the special teams.”
Say this for the defense, they still found ways to help the cause even when things were going sideways. In the second half, Tre Sterling returned an interception for a touchdown and Calvin Bundage forced an intentional-grounding penalty in the end zone that resulted in a safety. Those points turned out to be huge in a one-score game.
Plays like that also signaled something to Knowles about his guys.
“I think they still believe in themselves,” he said. “That’s a big positive, right?
Knowles has proven to be a guru of adjustments. He has tinkered and maneuvered and figured out ways to maximize what he has. For years, he has worked to improve the defense, to bring it out of a lowly place, and he got the Cowboys there this season.
Now, Knowles has a new challenge — how do you get a good defense to be good again?
He was ready to start looking for the answers Saturday night.
“I just want to go and watch the film and grade it,” he said. “Figure it out and get ready for the next opponent.”
The stiff drink would have to wait.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.