STILLWATER – Perception is everything, so the theory goes. And for too long this season, perception of Oklahoma State's defense only reflected visions of massive failure taken from losses to Arizona and Texas.
Perhaps an updated image is in order.
Since that Texas debacle, the Cowboys have played some of the best defense in the Big 12, confirmed both statistically and in the win column. And as OSU prepares for a Bedlam showdown in Norman, defense – as it did a year ago – may tilt the Cowboys' way.
“This is the best defense we've had since I've been here,” said Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy. “I thought preseason it would be.
“We started out kind of slow. We had some injuries. But they have really gotten better in the last month.”
Since Texas, the Cowboys are 5-1, with halting defensive performances against Kansas, Iowa State, TCU, West Virginia – yes, that West Virginia – and Texas Tech.
Even in their only loss in that period, 44-30 at then-No. 3 Kansas State, the end result was misleading, due to a kickoff return for a touchdown and an interception return for another score, one of five Cowboys turnovers, most impacting the scoreboard.
“We're playing great D,” said OSU safety Daytawion Lowe. “Our confidence is going up, because we see a lot of young guys stepping in and making plays.
“We're getting off the field on third downs. We're stopping the run. We're tackling better than we were at the beginning of the season. But at the same time, we're still hungry and trying to get better.”
With their string of strong performances, the Cowboys defense has pulled off a makeover. Allowing 25.4 points per game in conference play, they rank No. 3 in scoring defense, just behind the Sooners' 25.0 average. And OSU's 5.3 yards per play allowed – a significant statistic in an era when teams put a premium on playing fast and running more snaps – is the best in the Big 12.
“The beginning of the year, we stepped out on the wrong foot,” said linebacker Caleb Lavey. “We were allowing too many points, not getting enough turnovers. We haven't arrived to where we want to be, but we're slowly getting there. And hopefully we can continue to work and get better.”
So, how are they getting there?
* Force up front. With Calvin Barnett and James Castleman, the Cowboys are better at defensive tackle than they've been since Kevin Williams and LaWaylon Brown were forces up front.
* Finally healthy. Lyndell Johnson, a hybrid linebacker/safety nickel back, is healthy after missing several games to injury. His speed and long arms and awareness in the passing game has keyed improved results on third down, an early sore spot, allowing the defense to get itself off the field.
* Improvement. So simple, yet so often overlooked. Players and units and teams can improve over the course of a season. For a first time starter like safety Shamiel Gary, or for formerly slumping corners Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert, practice work has ultimately paid dividends.
“I think it's all about the personnel,” said defensive coordinator Bill Young. “Our guys are playing better. We're able to get more pressure. We're a big pressure team anyway, and that makes a big difference for us.”
Remember the difference a year ago, when the Cowboys harassed OU's Landry Jones, forcing mistakes that swung Bedlam momentum into a 44-10 blowout.
“With Jones, he can air the ball out,” Lavey said. “Any time you can get him looking around, making sure he's not going to get hit with a little pressure on him, it's going to affect his passing. We're trying to do that every snap and take away the pass.
“They're a good team, a great offense. Our coaches will have a good game plan. All we have to do is play lights out.”