No. 11 Oklahoma State (7-1, 4-1) enters this Saturday’s matchup against West Virginia (4-4, 2-3) looking to not only extend its winning streak against the Mountaineers, but also to stay in the chase for the College Football Playoff.
The Cowboys are just two weeks removed from their lone loss of the season, which came against the same Iowa State team that West Virginia defeated on Saturday. They returned to form, however, last week with a dominant, 55-3, victory over Kansas.
With all that said, the prevailing story coming out of Stillwater is the improvement on the defensive side of the ball for Mike Gundy’s team this season.
“I really think it’s defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles, he’s in his fourth season here for the Cowboys, and everyone has just bought in to what he is selling,” said Jessica Moorey, who writes for okstate.com. “You would never, in the past, talk about Oklahoma State’s defense as being the talk of the team, but this year is different.”
Many of the top defensive players on this OK State team began their careers in Stillwater the same season that Knowles did – 2018. The Cowboys do have both experience and depth at many positions on the defensive side of the football.
That depth hasn’t gone unquestioned, though, as the Cowboys saw two of its top defensive players, junior defensive end Trace Ford and redshirts senior safety Tre Sterling, go down with season-ending injuries in September.
“I couldn’t even imagine what this defense would look like if those guys were healthy,” Moorey said. “They look so good now, and you add those guys in, I couldn’t even tell you what it would be like. It’s been impressive to watch these guys.”
One specific player on defense to watch out for is linebacker Malcom Rodriguez, who’s regarded as one of the top linebackers in the conference, and tallied seven total tackles along with one tackle for loss against WVU last season.
Knowles’ defense has been a big factor in helping Oklahoma State survive some of the close games the Cowboys have played. So far this season, OK State has won four one-score games, and outside of its 52-point drubbing of the Jayhawks last week, hasn’t played in a game decided by more than 11 points.
You can’t talk Oklahoma State without mentioning Gundy’s offense, however.
Quarterback Spencer Sanders wasn’t able to play against the Mountaineers in 2020, and currently ranks eighth in the conference in passing yards per game. However, running back Jaylen Warren is averaging nearly five yards per carry, and is rushing for 106.3 yards per game on average this season.
“I think Jaylen Warren kind of came out and surprised some people,” Moorey said of the Utah State transfer. “He’s been playing really well. He’s just a tough runner.”
Oklahoma State is coming off its best offensive outing of the season, and did most of its damage in the first half.
The Cowboys offense has had production similar to that of WVU this season, though they’ve gone about it in different ways, with the Mountaineers being the top passing team in the conference and Oklahoma State being one of the better rushing teams in the Big 12.
One area that OK State has struggled in is allowing penetration into the backfield.
The Cowboys are, statistically, one of the worst teams in the nation in terms of tackles for loss allowed (6.25 per game). West Virginia’s defense, meanwhile, is averaging 7.2 TFLs per contest, which is fourth-best in the country.
Catch the full interview with Jessica on Saturday’s live edition of Mountaineer GameDay, airing at 10 a.m. ET on West Virginia Nexstar stations and 11 a.m. ET on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh.