STILLWATER — The troubles of Oklahoma State cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown were apparent against Texas, with both getting called for pass interference and Gilbert getting out-jumped by Mike Davis on a 32-yard pass on the Longhorns' game-winning drive.
But they are also at the forefront of a bigger problem for the Cowboys. Last season, Brown and Gilbert accounted for 10 interceptions. This season they don't have any.
What happened to the opportunistic Cowboy defense that forced an NCAA-best 44 turnovers and led the nation with a plus-21 turnover margin a season ago? The one that sometimes bent, but thrived on momentum-shifting plays that gave the ball back to a high-powered OSU offense that is still churning out yards and points?
“I have no idea,” Gilbert said. “But they'll come sooner or later.”
Based on defensive coordinator Bill Young's track record, Gilbert's prediction wouldn't normally be off-target.
Since Young returned to Stillwater in 2009, the Cowboys have forced at least 30 turnovers a season and ranked in the top 11 in the nation in that category. That's Young's philosophy, and what the coaches preach and teach in practice. They adopted a two-whistle rule, where even after the play has been blown dead, the defenders try to strip the ball.
But the results haven't been there so far this season, as the Cowboys have forced just four turnovers through the first four games of 2012. That's nowhere close to Young's goal of forcing three per game.
“Any point in time, we get a turnover (and) we shorten the field for our offense, we're in the money,” Young said. “We're out there (Tuesday) yelling and screaming as coaches at the players. So that's critical.”
Though OSU has consistently been able to take the ball away from its opponent during Young's tenure, research from Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders illustrates how difficult it is to duplicate forcing such a high volume of turnovers from one season to the next.
From 2007-2010, 26 teams were at least plus-15 in turnover margin. Nine of those had a negative turnover margin the next season, and 22 had its turnover margin decline by at least 10. Fremeau calculates that the correlation of turnover margin from year to year over the last five seasons is only .190.
“Turnovers and turnover margin aren't particularly consistent from year to year,” Fremeau said. “…Almost all of the metrics I post at Football Outsiders have stronger year-to-year correlations, and all but the special teams ones are significantly stronger.”
Missing from the 2011 OSU defense are Jamie Blatick, Richetti Jones and Markelle Martin, who accounted for six forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and two interceptions last season. But based on 2011 success, returners like Brown (five interceptions, two fumble recoveries), Gilbert (five interceptions, one fumble recovery), Shaun Lewis (two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble) and Alex Elkins (one interception, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries) have underachieved.
In fact, all turnovers gained by the Cowboys so far this season have come from non-starters. Ashton Lampkin, Lyndell Johnson and Tyler Johnson each have an interception, while Joe Mitchell has recovered a fumble.
There's still plenty of time in the season to shift those numbers, of course. In 2011, OSU forced 13 turnovers in September, but its most successful month was October, with 16 takeaways and a plus-13 turnover margin.
And there have already been some potential turnovers that just didn't bounce the Cowboys' way. James Castleman dropped an interception at Arizona. Brown had a pick stripped away against Savannah State. Lewis forced a fumble against Texas that was recovered by the Longhorns.
The lack of takeaways also isn't the only issue facing the OSU defense. The Cowboys allowed UT to convert 9 of its 17 third-down attempts and all three fourth-down attempts. They gave up 52 points against Arizona. Coach Mike Gundy said multiple times during the bye week that they must improve at defending the deep ball.
And though OSU ranks much better this season in statistical categories like total defense (No. 54 entering Saturday, 364 yards per game) and rushing defense (tied for No. 38, 121.25 yards per game) compared to 2011, the Cowboys have regressed in Fremeau's efficiency ratings in categories that have nothing to do with turnovers like forcing three-and-outs (No. 66 in 2011 to No. 77 so far in 2012) and surrendering available yards (No. 42 to No. 87).
But forcing turnovers has become the Cowboys' identity. That's why they say they did extra drills during Tuesday's practice, which focused on the proper fundamentals of forcing a turnover and recovering the ball. And Young still has faith the takeaways will come this season, starting with Saturday's game at Kansas.
“As a staff, we still believe that turnovers can come in droves,” Young said. “We could get four or five in one game, and then all of a sudden, we're on a roll. That's what we've got to do and we just have to keep emphasizing it and keep pounding that rock till it cracks.”