PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — When four Oklahoma State defensive players were asked to compare the Stanford offense to a unit the Cowboys faced during the regular season, four different answers were given.
End Jamie Blatnick said Kansas State. Cornerback Brodrick Brown said Texas. Safety Markelle Martin said Texas A&M. Linebacker Shaun Lewis said Oklahoma.
In reality, no offense the No. 3 Cowboys (11-1) have gone up against this season directly compares to the pro-style attack the No. 4 Cardinal (11-1) will bring in Monday's Fiesta Bowl. That presents a new challenge to an emerging Cowboy defense coming off its best performance of the season against Oklahoma nearly a month ago.
“They're a patient team,” OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young said of Stanford. “Three yards is plenty for them on that play. They'll get 10 on the next or five on the next. We've got to be patient and understand that hopefully, sometimes, they'll make a mistake, they'll get a penalty or we'll get a tackle for loss.”
Rather than the up-tempo spread offenses commonly seen in the Big 12, Stanford features a power running game and will use as many as three tight ends. It boasts a physical offensive line that Young called the best unit he's seen in three seasons. And it's all directed by Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck at quarterback.
The result is a balanced attack that consistently puts together long, methodical drives that usually end in points. The Cardinal ranks sixth in the nation in scoring offense (43 points per game), but reaches that total by holding onto the football for more than 33 minutes each contest — which ranks ninth nationally — and racking up nearly 481 yards.
That has been the issue for a Cowboy squad that ranks 107th in the nation in total defense (445.67 yards allowed per game) and has already been on the field for more than 1,000 plays this season. And giving up too many long drives would keep the high-powered OSU offense off the field.
“We can't have them having the ball for the whole game and our offense having it a couple times,” Blatnick said. “Getting 40 (offensive) snaps wouldn't cut it. We definitely can't give up the yardage that we have previously.”
The keys for the OSU defense starts with filling run gaps, Young said, which will be a tougher task without big defensive tackle Christian Littlehead. He is suspended for the Fiesta Bowl after being charged with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia earlier this month.
The Cowboy secondary must also be ready to play the run, but cannot lose track of the wide receivers and tight ends in the passing game.
“You'll see wide receivers and tight ends running wide open because the eyes of the corner or the safety aren't where they should be,” Young said. “They've got to be on their man, they've got to read their pass keys and then they've got to react.
“When it comes time to tackle him, they've got to get up and they've got to make a play. They can't stand back and let the blockers come to them and create a big seam in the defense.”
Also important, of course, is what has become OSU's trademark — forcing turnovers. The Cowboys lead the nation with 42 takeaways, and while Stanford is tied for ninth with just nine giveaways, that is a concern for Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
“I roll over in the middle of the night just thinking about the 42 takeaways that they've had,” he said. “They have really good speed defensively. The secondary does a great job of getting their hands on the ball. We have to be smart, secure the football and make sure we don't turn the ball over.”
Hamilton also noted the fact that OSU has not faced a pro-style offense has been a bit of a disadvantage for his staff, because they can't draw much from film study.
The Cowboys put together an aggressive, blitz-heavy game plan that shut down OU, but Blatnick said the positive momentum from that contest does not carry over much to a bowl game played a month later. He and Lewis did note, however, that the extra time to prepare for the Sooners was beneficial and that the Cowboys have again taken advantage of the long layoff since Bedlam.
And at some point, scheme can only go so far, Blatnick said. Stopping Stanford will be more about effort, instinct and tackling the player with the football than the style of offense or defense being played.
“Eventually, the chess game, you just tip the board over and throw some punches,” Blatnick said.