STILLWATER — When evaluating Oklahoma State's performance through the first four games of the season, coach Mike Gundy has consistently come back to one area that needs improvement.
Defending the deep ball.
Of course, there are several defensive backs that play a role in covering long passes down the field. And it's clear Markelle Martin is missed at the strong safety spot.
But the most concerning — and, really, surprising — development so far in the early season for the Cowboys is the regression of cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown, who were hyped as potentially the best DB tandem in the Big 12 before the season.
“I think they got exposed last Saturday night (against Texas),” Gundy said last week.
Despite being listed at 5-foot-8, last season Brown consistently frustrated bigger receivers — most notably, Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller — and continued to make athletic plays to get to the football. And Gilbert took a giant step in proving he was more than a speedy weapon in the return game by picking off four of the nation's top quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Landry Jones. Brown and Gilbert each tallied five interceptions to help pace a defense that led the nation with 44 take-aways.
Yet so far this season, both Brown and Gilbert have often been beat in 1-on-1 coverage and been called for pass interference. The pair has combined for zero interceptions and one pass breakup. Neither has looked like a player worthy of garnering All-Big 12 honors, something Brown earned last season and Gilbert appeared to have the potential to grab as a junior.
In a primetime game against the Longhorns, that was all magnified, with quarterback David Ash passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. On one of the game's most crucial plays — a 32-yard pass to Mike Davis down the sideline on the Longhorns' game-winning drive — Gilbert was out-jumped for the football.
“We know we're better than that,” said Gilbert, who engaged in some pregame trash talk by announcing he was not yet sold David Ash. “(The coaches are) not just going to let us be average, and we've been out there working on it.”
So why the struggles for the two promising corners? Coaches and players point to multiple reasons.
Defensive coordinator Bill Young first looks at needing to pressure the quarterback more, as any defensive line coach would. Of the Cowboys' eight sacks this season, only three have come from a defensive lineman. Against UT, 1.5 of OSU's two sacks and one of the its two quarterback hurries came from linebacker Shaun Lewis.