STILLWATER — In the spring of 2010, recently hired Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made a trip to Stillwater to spend time with former Oklahoma State offensive lineman and future Seahawk draftee Russell Okung.
During his visit, Carroll took in an OSU spring practice, and coach Mike Gundy utilized the opportunity to ask the former USC coach for some friendly advice.
“I said, ‘What could I do here that you've done (at USC) that could help our football team?'” Gundy recalls. “And he said, ‘Double the time you practice on forcing turnovers.'”
Gundy took Carroll's casual tip and has turned it into a full-fledged defensive philosophy, one that thrives on halting opponents' drives by taking the ball away even when sometimes giving up yards in bunches.
And the results so far this season have been staggering for the No. 3 Cowboys. OSU leads the nation in turnovers forced (29) and interceptions (17) and is tied for first in the country in fumbles recovered (12). Those takeaways have helped offset the amount of yards given up by the Cowboys, who rank 111th in the nation in total defense (455.63 yards allowed per game).
“We feel like forcing turnovers is a nature — it's just like putting on a helmet,” linebacker Shaun Lewis said. “We expect to go out there and get turnovers. We work at it so much, it's second nature to us.”
A shirt worn by safety Daytawion Lowe on Monday illustrates the mindset of the Cowboy defense. On the front, it said “Ball Hawk.” On the back, it said “Rip. Pick. Strip. Score.”
“We expect that we're going to work for (turnovers),” defensive end Jamie Blatnick said. “We don't expect them to just give it to us.”
That has been the longtime philosophy of OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young, who oversaw a Kansas defense that led the Big 12 in turnovers forced in 2007 before joining OSU's staff in 2009. The Cowboys finished Young's first two seasons ranked in the top 3 in the Big 12 in turnovers forced, including first in the conference in 2010 with 34.
This season, the OSU defense is on pace to blow by last year's turnover total.
And the emphasis on takeaways starts in practice, as Carroll suggested.
The Cowboy defenders spend about 15 minutes each day working specifically on forcing turnovers. That does not include team drills, where the defensive goal is to get five takeaways.
If they don't reach that mark, the OSU defenders must run.
“That's enough motivation to get as many as you can,” Lowe said. “You never want to run after practice.”
Kansas State, which visits Stillwater on Saturday, might present the toughest challenge yet for OSU's ball-hawking defense, as the 7-1 Wildcats are tied for fifth in the nation in fewest turnovers (eight).
But the Cowboys faced a similar task last week in Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. He had tossed just two interceptions before going up OSU's defense. Against the Cowboys, he threw two picks in the first half.
“It's definitely a motivational thing,” Lewis said. “Anytime an offense is good with taking care of the ball, we look at that as a challenge.”
Young and Gundy have both stressed that they would like to see the Cowboys give up less yards. But they also both embrace the Cowboys' defensive identity as an opportunistic bunch of playmakers.
“We also have a philosophy that the harder you work, the luckier you get,” Young said. “We work extremely hard at forcing turnovers—it's not by accident that we're getting them.
“Some of them, no question about it, it's fortunate. But most of them are earned.”