STILLWATER – During a preseason carrying elevated expectations, Oklahoma State fans kept cautioning themselves with one nagging question.
Can the Cowboys claim a championship without a championship defense?
Any definition of a championship defense first depends on the math.
And No. 7 OSU prefers a new math.
For decades, if not a century, two statistics — total defense and scoring defense — told the tale on a defense's worth. Now, accurate computations aren't so simple. Variables, some connected to the offense, complicate the formula.
“If you're sitting down watching TV in the state of Washington or somewhere and our score comes across the bottom and says 61-34,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said, “if you follow college football you're saying, ‘Well, those guys are lighting it up again, but they can't stop anybody.'”
That score, 61-34, was the final Saturday in OSU's season-opening win over Louisiana-Lafayette. It was a game that was never close and dominated by offense and, perhaps more so, defense.
“Those folks don't know that our defense really gave up six points,” Gundy said. “Our offense gave them 14 and then we let everybody play and they scored a couple times.”
OSU's defense is far from flawless. Youth fills the crosshairs at critical positions like tackle and middle linebacker.
Time will ultimately tell if this Cowboys defense is title tough. This Thursday night clash with Arizona's explosive passing game poses a challenge. And there are many more to come, at Texas A&M and dealing with Baylor's Robert Griffin III, among others, before any hopeful high-stakes Bedlam showdown in December.
But time past tells us some things, too. And it isn't as simple, say, as the No. 88 ranking in total defense affixed to the Cowboys in 2010.
* OSU's offense, which finished No. 1 in the Big 12 and No. 3 nationally in both total offense and scoring offense, ran a school-record 982 plays a year ago. And yet, the Cowboys finished last in the league in time of possession. So the Pokes scored a lot and scored fast, promptly giving the ball back to enemy offenses. Even the basic math suggests more plays equals more yards and more points for the opposition, too.
* Contrasting OSU's No. 88 total defense ranking was a yards-per-play allowed of 5.0, the same as Missouri (No. 47 total defense) and better than conference champion Oklahoma (No. 53). The Cowboys also forced 34 turnovers, which led the Big 12 and ranked fifth nationally in a payoff of defensive coordinator Bill Young's emphasis on takeaways.
“Nobody emphasizes that more than we do,” Young said. “Our head football coach all the way down to our graduate assistants are screaming and yelling every play in practice – ‘Strip it! Rip it! Pick it!'”
* Always unaccounted for in the raw data is how many yards and points were surrendered when games are out of hand and backups are playing. Playing time for subs soared last year, when the Cowboys won eight games by three scores or more.
So how does OSU's defense really rate? It may require a high-tech calculator.
“It's really gotten skewed the last five years here,” Gundy said, “based on us running up big numbers on offense.
“And I tell Bill and I tell the staff, he gets the short end of the stick, because we had several games last year where the defense didn't play even halfway into the third quarter. And it happened out here again Saturday night.”
Last winter, while weighing the pros and cons of filling Oklahoma State's vacant offensive coordinator position, Todd Monken was easily sold on the talent returning and the offense overall.
Monken found much to like on the other side of the ball, too, as he searched for confirmation that the Cowboys could not just win, but win big – championship big.
“Look at the A&M game they won here; six turnovers,” Monken said. “You win the game because of that. The offense had (351) yards. And they got the ball back six times when things weren't going well.
“That wins you games. That changes momentum. Shortens the field. Doesn't put the pressure on you to feel like you have to drive the field and score every time.
Defense was key in a 5-0 road record in 2010, playing well at Texas Tech, Kansas State, Texas and Kansas, all places that had proved prickly to past OSU squads.
There were bad moments, too, as the offense's 41 points weren't enough in losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma at home. And those are games that stick in the minds of Cowboys fans. That and an inability to get off the field on third down in key moments, a trend that has tormented followers for too long.
Still, Monken points to one more telling statistic from 2010: 11 wins.
And Young and Co. insist they're not satisfied yet.
“We talked before the game about laying a foundation, and we did that,” said senior safety Markelle Martin. “Everybody came out fast and we started physical with minimal mistakes.
“We're proud of how we started, and we want to carry that momentum into week two.”