STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — With the nation's leading rusher in Chuba Hubbard and one of its top five receivers in Tylan Wallace, No. 21 Oklahoma State has received a lot of attention for its potent offense.
But it was the Cowboys' stifling defense that made the difference in their 26-13 victory over then-No. 24 Kansas State on Saturday, limiting the Wildcats to 244 total yards.
Coach Mike Gundy also pointed out how OSU's success in limiting K-State to 1 of 13 on third-down conversions had such a big impact on the result. That was a welcome development for the Cowboys (4-1, 1-1 Big 12), especially after they had allowed Oregon State to convert 13 of 20 in Oklahoma State's 52-36 season-opening victory on Aug. 30. OSU also allowed Tulsa to go 10 of 21 on third down in a 40-21 win on Sept. 14 and Texas to go 8 of 14 in a 36-30 loss on Sept. 21.
"We talked about this at Oregon State, we had so many plays, we couldn't get off the field," Gundy said of the game where Oregon State had 86 plays on offense. "We got off the field the other night, it was 1 of 13, so the defense plays (55) plays. If they convert 5 of 13, then you're going to be close to 80 plays, you'd be 75 plays or more. So you stop them on third down, you get off the field."
Against Tulsa, OSU's defense was on the field for 88 plays, and against Texas, it was 71.
In addition to the third-down success, Oklahoma State's big defensive accomplishment on Saturday was its ability to shut down Kansas State's strong running game. The Wildcats entered the game ranked 10th in the nation in rushing, averaging 280 yards per contest, but only mustered 18 yards on 13 carries in the first half before finishing with 126 yards on 32 rushes (a 3.9-yard average) overall.
"The players really bought into the plan. The plan had to be a little different," Cowboys defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said after the game. "I don't think our guys had ever seen an I-formation before. The coaches did a great job and we were 100% bought in. We knew we had to be physically tough to stop the run. It was a challenge to the players and they responded."
It was an impressive showing by a defensive unit that includes six first-time starters this season. One of its top performers has been junior Malcolm Rodriguez, who played well at safety last year, even ranking second on the team with 83 tackles. But facing a thin linebacker corps this year, the decision was made in the off-season to move Rodriguez to bolster the position.
Gundy pointed out that the switch could work only if the guy who took over Rodriguez's starting spot at safety, Tre Sterling, could successfully fill that role, which he has. Rodriguez leads the Cowboys (and is tied for fifth in the Big 12) along with fellow linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga with 42 tackles this year, while Sterling is fourth on the squad with 30 tackles, including 20 in the last three games.
"He processes information really good, he thinks fast and reacts — very important in today's game," Gundy said of Sterling, a redshirt sophomore who played primarily on special teams in 2018. "He's been a steady player for us and he was the player of our game for the defense (against Kansas State), made some really good plays, seems to be in the right spot most of the time. I'm excited about the improvement he's made in just one year.
"And dropping (Rodriguez) down (to linebacker) has been beneficial because (Sterling)'s playing good. It allowed us to keep him down. If you move (Rodriguez) down and (Sterling)'s not playing good, now you have to think about moving him back and going a different route at linebacker."
Of course, the blueprint for Oklahoma State's defensive success against Kansas State won't help the Cowboys next Saturday when they go up against a very different offense at Texas Tech (2-2, 0-1), but the players are ready for the challenge.
"Texas Tech and Kansas State are two completely different offenses, but we can still take some key things away from here like our tackling," Sterling said. "That was much better than I think it has been all season. We can take that into Texas Tech. We go against our offense every day, so we're ready for Tech's speed. It's two completely different offenses, but we know we're ready for both and we can switch it up."