DALLAS — In this post-Weeden2Blackmon restart for Oklahoma State, the Cowboys plan to lean on, drum roll, please … their defense.
That's right, the unit that was nationally trashed, possibly influencing OSU just missing a shot at the BCS Championship game, is now being pitched as a pillar for a team breaking in a rookie quarterback and auditioning wide receivers.
Don't associate such talk with an offensive retreat from the system that's piled up record yards and points. The Cowboys won't slow down or grind out games on the ground.
The inner-program faith in the defense is legit.
“I feel better now than I ever have about our defense since I've been the head coach,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said Tuesday, as the Cowboys joined the Big 12 Media Days crush in Dallas.
Even a year ago, when the Cowboys ranked 107th nationally in total defense, Gundy always claimed they were better than perceived. He urged critics to inquiry deeper, focusing on another telling statistic, the team's No. 1 rank in takeaways.
The Cowboys may have surrendered yards, but they got their stops, too, 44 of them via the turnover, a major emphasis of defensive coordinator Bill Young, resulting in three straight seasons ranking in the top 11 of the NCAA's forced turnover category.
“Bill Young's defense was turning the ball over better than anyone in the country,” said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. “That's pretty good defense if you turn the ball over better than anyone in the country.”
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen grew to appreciate that approach in his one year as offensive coordinator at OSU, one reason he said he hired Joe DeForest away from the Cowboys to head up his defense.
“You're going to give up yards in this league,” Holgorsen said. “Look at every one of the defenses that exists in the Big 12, every one gives up yards, every one gives up plays. What Oklahoma State does such a good job of, and Bill's a reason for this, is just not having that panic button.
“He's the most laid-back guy that I know. And Joe's taken a lot of that defensively and will bring it to our team. You're going to give up those points and you're going to give up those yards, but you just can't hit the panic button.”
The Big 12's evolution into an up-tempo, pass-happy league has skewed statistics. The league produced three quarterbacks for the first round of this year's NFL Draft and is sure to pad that figure in the 2013 talent grab.
Offense rules in the Big 12. And yet, the Cowboys' 25.4 points allowed in Big 12 play led the league.
There's still room for good defense, by the right definition.
“If you get us the ball back, we can score more,” said OSU tailback Joseph Randle. “They led the country in that, so we scored a lot of points. The offense got a lot of shine, but you can't take away from them the fact that they took the ball away a lot and got us the ball.
“They did their part last year. And I think they'll do that again this year.”
The Cowboys could do that — and more. Eight starters return, and there's a sense that the unit is just now maturing. The linebacker trio of Shaun Lewis, Caleb Lavey and Alex Elkins returns intact and ranks among the best in the Big 12.
The secondary is stacked, too, with cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert ranked among the top three defensive backs in the conference by ESPN's K.C. Joyner. Safety Daytawion Lowe, who led the team in tackles a year ago, returns.
And the biggest boost should come up front, where the Cowboys enjoy rare depth, as well as talent at all four spots.
For a change, there's a positive buzz about the defense.
“It's a great feeling,” said senior defensive end Cooper Bassett, “because ever since I've been on defense it's been, ‘Well, the defense is a question mark. The D-line is the weak point.'
“So it's nice to hear everyone give us respect and give us some credit. But at the same point, we haven't done anything yet. We haven't won any ball games. We haven't stopped anyone in 2012. But we do have talent.”
The Cowboys did lose three key elements from last year's defense: ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones and safety Markelle Martin. That's talent and leadership that must be replaced.
“The defense is gong to be fine,” Jones said. “We can be replaced with guys who have already played big-time football.”
And even in his absence, Jones would revel in a rise of the Cowboys' defense.
“Since I've been at Oklahoma State, defense has always been a stepchild,” Jones said. “People are always talking bad about our defense.
“Having watched the young guys who came here as freshmen with their eyes wide open, because they were scared, watching them succeed will be enough for me.”