October 20, 2008

Tenacious D: Cowboys are confident

It appears that the days of the defense being a huge liability for Oklahoma State is over.

Three games into the Big 12 slate for 2008 and the Cowboys are seeing success on the defensive side of things.

Not that the national media is noticing - yet.

And that's not being lost on the players.

"We're still not getting credit on ESPN before the game," Andre Sexton said. "I watched and they were bashing us again, saying 'I just don't think this defense is good enough to take them to the Big 12 Championship.' It still hurts when you watch it, but you just put it in the back of your mind and just go out there and use it for motivation."

Whatever the Pokes are using for motivation, it's working. After spending the last few years way down the charts in NCAA and Big 12 statistics, things are beginning to change for the much-maligned unit this year. Nationally, the Cowboy D ranks 47th in total defense, 40th in scoring defense and 35th in rushing defense. The pass defense is still lacking - ranking 77th - but the team has survived big-game passing days so far from up-tempo offenses such as Houston and Missouri.

So, in short, the defense has made strides. No longer is OSU football all about outscoring the opponent and hoping the defense doesn't blow things. There's a certain word beginning to pop up around the unit that hasn't been seen anywhere near it in awhile: confidence. Limiting the Tigers to 23 points and Baylor to six points and 204 yards the past two weeks gives a defense plenty to feel good about.

"Anybody that's had a little success is going to start building some confidence," defensive coordinator Tim Beckman said. "And we keep on preaching about being confident in yourself, confident in your teammates and playing football for 60 minutes."

The numbers within Big 12 play only show in closer detail the improvement that has been made this season. The Cowboys rank 4th in the league in scoring defense (25.5 points per game) and rushing defense (124 yards per game). The team ranks first in the Big 12 in turnover margin, in large part to the defense posting five interceptions and three fumbles in only three games. And while the unit only ranks ninth in total defense (428 ypg) in the league, they're still 3-0 in the Big 12 and in position to compete for the South Division title.

So what's changed? Has a giant light clicked over the defense?

"I can't tell you, we're just playing," Derek Burton said. "It's not like we're doing something just different. We're just playing and doing well. I'm enjoying it."

Sexton believes the unit is just more comfortable in Beckman's system now.

"He's been calling the same things he's been calling - the ones we had last year - we're just executing better," he said. "We're having fun out there, flying around and making hits. We're just playing as a whole defense together. Everybody is just walking around with a different confidence - a chip on their shoulder. And when we're having fun out there, no one is going to stop us."

One of the biggest complaints about the defense early in the season was the pass rush. The Cowboys had issues on containment of quarterbacks. Against Houston, Case Keenum was able to scramble for 81 yards, including a long of 21. Jamie Hampton gained 54 yards for Troy. And Texas A&M's Jerrod Johnson ran it 14 times for 42 yards, including a long of 14. But against Mizzou and Baylor, things started to change. While Chase Daniel gained 46 yards on the ground, he didn't hurt OSU much with his feet. And the Bears' Robert Griffin - who had 102 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma on Oct. 4 - was held to only 12 yards.

"As a defense, we've been getting criticized, but our D-line has been getting criticized more because they haven't got pressure on the quarterback," Sexton said. "And two weeks in a row against quarterbacks that could really hurt us, we've gotten pressure on them and hit them pretty hard."

From here on out, the task only gets tougher for the defense and there are more tests on the horizon. That begins this week at Texas and continues on the road at Texas Tech (Nov. 8) and at home for Bedlam (Nov. 29). But luckily for them, the media has thrown another log on the fire. Now the ESPN types are saying OSU is the most overrated team at the top of the BCS rankings because of the defense.

Another week, another chance to prove itself.

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