One year ago to the day, I wrote this column. The title: “What to make of OSU’s offense.” The theme of the column was that we didn’t know what to expect out of the offense. There were so many question marks. Turns out, I pretty much nailed my assessment that OSU’s offense could indeed be very potent: Although Brandon Weeden hadn’t started a game prior to last season, he looked good when he did play. Although the offensive line lacked starting experience, they had game experience and Joe Wickline to get them ready. Although OSU was in its first year under a new offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen had a history of prolific offenses in his first year on campus. Check, check and check. The only question I couldn’t answer was who would step up at wide receiver. We know the answer to that question now, but I wasn’t alone at the time.
In the end, I concluded there was a good chance OSU could be quite good on offense last year. Two all-Americans and one first-team all-Big 12 quarterback later, we know things worked out fine. So fine, in fact, that OSU was really just three or four defensive stands away from having a realistic shot at an undefeated season. Alas, OSU’s defense gave up a combined 98 points in the team’s two losses. The common theme: Opposing quarterbacks standing unmolested in the backfield, waiting, waiting, waiting for a receiver to get open. The end results: A combined 791 passing yards allowed in the losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma, and 1,128 yards of offense allowed overall.
In fact, for however great the 2010 season was — and hitting 11 wins for the first time is certainly pretty good — the 2010 season for OSU’s defense was not good. Welcome to OSU football in the Mike Gundy era. Let’s take a look at some of OSU’s defensive statistics in the Gundy era. We’ll look at points per game allowed/yards per game allowed/opponents held under 20 points/team wins.
The numbers show that 2009 has been by far the best season of defense under Gundy’s watch. Now I know you can twist statistics any way you want, but I think this next set of numbers illustrates a good point:
What are those numbers? Those are the total number of sacks and quarterback hurries recorded by OSU’s defense. Notice a trend? OSU’s worst statistical defensive years for yards and points allowed match up perfectly with the team’s worst years for sacks and quarterback hurries. I know it’s no coincidence, but I think it points to what will be the Cowboys No. 1 indicator for overall success in 2011: Defensive line play.
Simply put, stellar defensive line play is the missing ingredient, the one thing that can push Oklahoma State to an elite level.
It’s safe to say that Kevin Williams is not going to walk through that door. But if OSU could at least get a reasonable facsimile to show up on Saturdays (and one Thursday and Friday) this season, this could be a big year. You can feel confident the offense will put up some numbers. With the amount of returning talent and continuity, there’s no reason to think otherwise. (And let’s not even worry about this whole “How will Todd Monken do” theme. As Eddie Sutton once said, Jimmies and Joes are better than Xs and Os.)
On the other side of the ball, you know there are multiple playmakers in the secondary and Shaun Lewis is a star at linebacker. But you also know that Bill Young’s defense is not built on risk-taking and crazy all-out blitz packages. It’s about playing it safe, wearing opponents down and waiting for them to make mistakes and turn the ball over. While that may work against 90 percent of the Big 12, it won’t work against the Sooners. It may not work against Texas A&M or Missouri this year, either, especially on the road. What will work for OSU? Someone on the defensive line stepping into some form of beast mode. A tackle demanding double teams. An end beating his man with regularity.
Can OSU record a truly magical season in 2011? It can, if someone can get to the quarterback.