STILLWATER — What's the first thing that comes to mind when Cooper Bassett thinks of Collin Klein?
Not the most pleasant mental image, but one that certainly applies to the way the Kansas State quarterback and Heisman candidate runs the football.
“Collin's one of those guys (that) wants to break through tackles,” said Bassett, the Cowboy defensive end. “He wants to run someone over.”
Bassett expects a battle in the trenches when Oklahoma State travels to Manhattan to face a K-State squad that leads the Big 12 in rushing at 215 yards per game. But it won't just be between the Wildcats' offensive line and the Cowboys' front seven. It will also be between Klein and the OSU front seven.
And now with a true difference-maker at tackle, linebackers with another year of experience and increased depth, Bassett and coach Mike Gundy believe OSU is more equipped than last season to defend Klein and K-State's methodical offense.
Or it better be, Gundy said, if the Cowboys are going to have any shot at scoring a major upset against the No. 2 team in the BCS standings on its home field.
“You can't just let them block down, kick out and pull and run over you,” Gundy said. “Because then you never get the ball back. (The OSU front seven has) to perform and play at a high level.
“They've got to be able to hold their ground and force (K-State) into a situation they don't want to be in.”
The surge of the Cowboy defense has been a key development during its three-game winning streak. It has allowed just four offensive touchdowns in the past 12 quarters. OSU now ranks third in the Big 12 and in the top 45 in the nation in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense, a dramatic improvement from a season ago.
And it starts at defensive tackle, where junior college transfer Calvin Barnett has been an immediate force and James Castleman has been steady. Defensive coordinator Bill Young said he also wants to rotate Anthony Rogers and Davidell Collins in more.
Those big, athletic bodies will be crucial to clogging the middle of the field, where Klein picks up a large chunk of his rushing yards.
“(Barnett) brings an added sense of toughness and aggression to our defensive line that we've really kind of missed for the past few years,” Bassett said. “With him, and then the size and athleticism with James Castleman playing nose guard, it really, really helps our defense.
“It lets the guys on the back end (in the secondary) kind of do their thing and not have to worry about making up for us up front.”
Additionally, OSU's starting linebackers — Shaun Lewis, Caleb Lavey and Alex Elkins — are a season older and wiser. The speed and athleticism of reserves Ryan Simmons and Lyndell Johnson will also be counted on against a quarterback like Klein who can run and throw.
Then mix in pressure from the defensive ends and help from the secondary, which has all contributed to an OSU defense that has tallied 12 quarterback hurries, eight tackles for loss (three sacks) and five take-aways over the past two games.
Young also believes it's beneficial that the Cowboys have now faced Klein, who amassed 231 passing yards, 144 rushing yards and four total touchdowns last season. The key, Young said, is not to over-pursue Klein when bringing pressure off the edge and to stay in front of him on the inside, because Klein is a patient runner who will wait for holes to open. And Young knows the Wildcat offensive line likes to double-team a defensive tackle, and will also try to get an offensive tackle down the field to block a linebacker.
By the end of the contest, Bassett expects to be bruised up. He could have bloody elbows like Klein, too.
But Bassett believes his defensive line and linebackers are now more capable of handling the physical challenge Klein and K-State present. And he knows the Cowboy front seven will have to produce results Saturday night against one of the premier players in college football in order to have a chance to knock off the nation's No. 2 team.
“I don't think we'll be able to rattle (Klein),” Bassett said. “But hopefully, we can contain him and present a lot of issues for him.”