STILLWATER — Mike Gundy was recently asked — perhaps in a somewhat sugarcoated way — if cornerback play was the most “surprising” development for Oklahoma State this season.
The Cowboy coach didn't give a sugarcoated response.
“You're being nice,” Gundy said. “We haven't played very good at that position.”
Before the season, Gundy touted the 2012 defense as the best he's had since he became OSU's head coach. That was based on the hope that the front seven, with an experienced group of linebackers and the addition of Calvin Barnett up front, would improve. The given, it seemed, would be that the back end, where starting corners Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert were sure to build on a 2011 season that saw them combine for 10 interceptions and plenty of big plays on a takeaway-heavy defense.
Instead, that position was the defense's biggest weakness.
Neither Brown nor Gilbert snagged an interception in the regular season. Too many of their 114 combined tackles came after allowing a first-down catch. And they were a major component of an OSU pass defense that ranked 112th out of 120 teams in the nation, giving up more than 285 yards per game.
“We defended deep balls much better (as the season went along), but we weren't challenging enough on those underneath throws,” Gundy said. “That's a fact. That's the way it is.”
Gundy's referring to the infamous cushion to catch the ball the cornerbacks allowed the receivers, which became a particularly alarming development during the latter part of the season. It was most evident against Oklahoma, when Landry Jones and the Sooner air attack rolled to 512 passing yards by living off the hitch route, rather than throwing the ball down the field.
And it's tough to make an impact play — an interception, a pass break-up — when a player is nowhere near the football.
Defensive coordinator Bill Young said the bigger cushion wasn't the result of any philosophy change following early season struggles to stop the deep ball. He always tries to mix up coverages between man and zone, and a defensive back's alignment depends on the specific look and the opposing receiver. For example, in a cover four defense, the cornerback typically lines up one yard inside the sideline and seven yards off the line of scrimmage.
The overall goal is, of course, to keep the catch in front of the secondary. The goal is not to give up 10-yard pass after 10-yard pass as the opposing offense marches toward the end zone.
“We didn't say, ‘Hey, back off of them more,'” Young said.
And Brown admits giving up that much room in between him and the receiver can be frustrating.
“To tell you the truth, we don't like it either,” he said. “But you've got to play within the scheme of the defense. If you're out of position, then you'll really get talked about.”
There are several other factors that have contributed to the Cowboys' regression at cornerback.
Two backups, Devin Hedgepeth and Jonovan Griffin, were lost because of season-ending injuries, forcing true freshmen Kevin Peterson and Ashton Lampkin into immediate playing time. The secondary no longer had safety Markelle Martin, a key leader and consistent performer. And Justin Gilbert was no longer pushed by the practice battles with superstar receiver Justin Blackmon.
More attention — and criticism — also naturally falls to the secondary, because, unlike the defensive line and linebackers, there's no one else to make up for their mistakes. Defensive end Cooper Bassett said his mates up front actually deserve the blame for the abundance of passing yards allowed.
“The reason the ball's getting there is because the defensive line isn't putting pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “We can make our corners look a whole heck of a lot better, if we're getting back to the quarterback and knocking him on his butt or deflecting passes or making him frustrated.”
In the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Purdue won't present a dangerous downfield passing attack. But the Boilermakers have utilized the short pass all season.
That could be dangerous for the Cowboys. Or it could give them a chance to prove they've come up with a better plan to contest those underneath throws.
“That's what we need to do to get better, and we need to do it in the bowl game,” Gundy said. “We've worked on it, we're continuing to work on it. …
“If we were defending those throws better, with everything else we did on defense, we would have been pretty good, now. So that's where we have to improve.”
Staff writer Jenni Carlson contributed to this report.