August 29, 2008

Defensively Different? We'll find out soon

The game of football is all about the "O" and the "D."

And the "O" in Oklahoma State stands for offense.

Over the past couple of years, the Cowboys have become very impressive moving the ball, gaining yards and racking up points.

But where is the "D" in Oklahoma State?

Exactly.

Not only is there no letter "D" in the school's name, there's been no "D" on the gridiron either.

A cheapshot? Perhaps. But it's largely true. After all, the biggest problem OSU has had in recent years is a defense so leaky that not even a plumber could patch it up. There's no need to break down the statistics the OSU defensive units have compiled these last few years - they've all been pretty dismal. Instead, the question is can the tide be turned? Will this be the year the defense improves enough to not erase the big numbers the offense puts up?

Those are questions which will begin to be answered on Saturday, when the Cowboys take on Washington State in Seattle. And while it'll take more than just one game to really gauge how improved the unit is, the buzz from inside the program lends one to believe that things will definitely be different on that side of the ball.

"I definitely think we have a little swagger," Andre Sexton said. "I think we know we're going to fly around now. We know we're definitely going to hit people, so I think now all we have to do is get onto the field and just be ready to try and get some turnovers as well so we can give our offense an opportunity to score."

The offense didn't have any trouble scoring when the opportunity arose. Finishing the season in the top 10 nationally in total offense proved that. The problem was that the defense tended to let the opponent score too quickly and too often, evaporating the offensive output. In their defense, however, there were some major changes going on. Tim Beckman had only begun to install his system and some players were looking at their third defensive coordinator in four years. After all, too much change at once isn't always a good thing.

"You wanted to do so much last year, but its got to fit your personnel," Beckman said. "And we're still in that thought here at Oklahoma State because we're not to the personnel we really want, but we've gotten better and our players are believing in what we're doing."

And judging from the player's comments this pre-season, they really believe the defense is getting better.

"Since I got here, the defense has made a huge leap forward from what it has been," Jamie Blatnick said. "We've got a lot of young players who are coming along and everyone knows what they're supposed to do. I just feel like we're playing good together and we have high hopes. I think it's going to be a much more improved defense this year."

Is that mainly due to having more time under Beckman's system?

"Yes I would say so," Ricky Price said. "We're more comfortable and we understand the calls. We understand how we're supposed to play the defense and what he wants from us. We're going to surprise a lot of people."

But it's not just that. It's the infusion of new talent. Several players coming in this year have already started making an impact and changing how the players view things. One in particular is already making quite the impression.

"When Lucien Antonie first came in here, he was so excited to hit somebody," Sexton said. "I think his first couple of hits reminded everybody what defense is about: having fun, flying around and wanting to hit people. And I think it just started rubbing off on everybody. They all wanted to start hitting someone and it became fun again.

"Our mindset has changed. Since Lucien and them have come in here, they've sparked a plug and that's rubbed off on all of us. Now we want to not only go out there and stop people, but we want to punish them when they to do things against us. That's what also has us excited, because we're ready for the first game. We're tired of beating up on our offense. Now we want to try and beat up on someone else."

It's apparently infectious.

"Yes, it's rubbing off on all of us, even the offense," Orie Lemon said. "Because when Lucien first came in, he was saying 'all day' and we really didn't know what that meant. But he was like, 'We work all day, 24 hours on a clock non-stop.' So Lucien basically brought that over so we work all day now."

It's not like OSU needs to have an all-world defense this season. While a top 10 defense would be welcome with open arms, even a defense ranked around 50th nationally could net the Pokes two or even possibly three more wins in the regular season this year. That's the difference between Shreveport and San Diego or Dallas in terms of postseason destinations.

But ultimately, the defense is still growing and learning. The spring and summer have apparently been pretty good to the defenders. Now, the regular season is here and it's time to see just exactly what the payoff will be.

"You want to be able to do what you have been working on and preparing for," Beckman said. "We're worried about what Oklahoma State can do and what we can do on defense. And that's what we're looking forward to seeing - how much we have progressed and to see how much we have gotten ourselves better and trying to build ourselves a belief here in Stillwater that we can play defense."

And if the Cowboys can play defense this year and show a big turnaround - look out, Big 12.

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