STILLWATER — Bill Young stood in a large theater room Saturday evening, already looking past Oklahoma State's second consecutive dominating defensive performance and already looking ahead.
“We're going to see next week how good we are,” the Cowboy defensive coordinator said. “We'll find out real quick how good a defense we are.”
Collin Klein. No. 2 Kansas State. Saturday night in the Little Apple.
After three consecutive Big 12 victories, OSU has crept back into the USA Today Coaches poll and is ranked No. 24 in the latest BCS standings. The Cowboys continue to be one of two teams that control their conference title destiny. The other, of course, is K-State, a legitimate national title contender and an opponent that kick-starts the four-game stretch that will define OSU's season.
And the first test will likely be the toughest, with K-State proving to be one of the nation's elite teams while beating Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas Tech on its surge up the BCS standings.
OSU will square off against all of those squads in November, which will prove where the Cowboys belong in the Big 12 pecking order. A contender to repeat as conference champ? Or a squad that took advantage of a trio of winnable games in October, only to wilt when the heavy-hitters came calling down the stretch?
After questions about OSU's defense during the first half of the season, the Cowboys have been impressive on that side of the ball as of late, holding three consecutive conference opponents to fewer than 20 points for the first time since 1986. Against Iowa State and TCU, Oklahoma State allowed just two total offensive touchdowns, with both coming in the first quarter.
But here comes Klein, the throwback, dual-threat quarterback who relies on toughness rather than speed. Young calls Klein “a fullback playing quarterback” who can throw the ball, too. Klein also happens to be the Heisman front-runner as we enter the final month of the regular season.
“We played the Heisman winner last year,” Young said. “I guess we'll get another shot at it.”
And though the stats don't necessarily show it, the Cowboys were excellent last season against Baylor's Robert Griffin III. He finished with 425 passing yards, but threw two interceptions in a game the Cowboys led 42-0 early in the third quarter.
The Cowboys were not so good against Klein a season ago, however. In a wild 52-45 victory for OSU on a night when an earthquake shook Boone Pickens Stadium, Klein finished with 231 passing yards, 144 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. Though the Cowboys did make the decisive stand near the goal line in the game's final seconds.
Klein is even better in 2012, completing nearly 71 percent of his passes for 1,630 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushing 634 yards and 16 touchdowns. He ranks fourth in the nation in scoring and sixth in points responsible for (21 per game).
But the OSU defense is starting to look like the much-improved unit it claimed to be before the season began.
Tackles James Castleman and Calvin Barnett have really plugged the interior, the area Klein likes to pound the ball, much better than last season. The Cowboys have recently gotten increased pressure on the quarterback and have forced five turnovers over the past two games. Against Iowa State and TCU, the Cowboys allowed just six conversions on 31 third-down attempts.
Granted, opposing quarterbacks Jared Barnett, Steele Jantz and Trevone Boykin are not on the same level as Klein. Perhaps no one is as an all-around offensive football player. But Saturday presents a huge opportunity for the OSU defense, especially while the offense continues to find its footing with Wes Lunt back at quarterback.
We'll know by this time next month how good these Cowboys — and their defense — are.
Or, as Young believes, by this time next week.