The narrative on Oklahoma State's defense this year is that the much-improved group has helped to keep the team afloat as the offense has found its way. But while the advanced stats are friendly to the Cowboys — they rank 15th in Defensive S&P+ — the more complex analysis points this out: Oklahoma State has typically been better than people thought on the defensive side of the ball. Last year, Oklahoma State was 12th in Defensive S&P+. Remember 2011, when critics argued that the Cowboys didn't have the defense to ante up with Alabama and LSU? Oklahoma State was 13th. In fact, you'd have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a season where Oklahoma State didn't rank in the nation's top 15 in Defensive S&P+.
But while you could make the argument that Oklahoma State gets it done defensively in a way that looks better via advanced metrics*, the Cowboys have fielded a defense this year that looks strong by conventional statistics as well.
* S&P+ is a measure of efficiency on a play-by-play basis. Oklahoma State often comes across worse in total yardage and scoring defense because the defense faces a ton of plays, a result of the offense's up-tempo attack. A team that holds its opponents to five yards per play over 60 plays allows 300 yards and looks great. If that average per play holds true, but the defense faces 80 plays, it allows 400 yards and the defensive coordinator is on the hot seat. But, when broken into a play-by-play efficiency rate, rather than simply counting yards, Oklahoma State has traditionally looked much better.
The Cowboys rank second in the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing just 19.7 points per game, only allow opposing runners to average 3.5 yards per carry and rank second in pass efficiency defense. They're first in the Big 12 in turnovers forced per game — a big part of the reason they're also first in turnover margin — and they have the league's best defense on third downs, only allowing a 29.6 conversion rate. And they're stingy in the red zone, with the league's second-best red zone defense.
They do that in a little bit of a different manner than most … while most teams play some version of nickel to get more speed on the field to combat the league's spread offenses, Oklahoma State faces most attacks with all three linebackers on the field. That's not to say that the nickel isn't in their playbook, and they run it when it makes sense to. But the Cowboys won't run the nickel just because, or just in case. You have to give them a reason to use it.
The defensive tackle duo of Calvin Barnett (6-2 300) and James Castleman (6-2 296) is among the best in the conference. Barnett not only eats up blocks, but he has six tackles for loss, two sacks and a team-high five quarterback hurries. Castleman has four tackles for loss and has blocked two kicks on the year. Tyler Johnson (6-1 245) is one of the most underrated ends in the league, making 35 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks. He shows up a lot on tape. The other bookend is Jimmy Bean (6-5 245), who has 21 tackles, three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
A big part of the reason Oklahoma State has been able to play three linebackers is that the Cowboy linebackers have been incredibly active in helping to defend the pass. In fact, seven of the Cowboys' interceptions have come from their starting trio of linebackers. Caleb Lavey (6-3 235) is having a great season in the middle, leading the team in tackles (68) and tackles for loss (10.5). He also has 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. Shaun Lewis (5-11 225) might be the most dynamic of the bunch. He has 43 tackles, including six tackles for loss and three interceptions. And Ryan Simmons (6-0 242) will be familiar with Texas running back Malcolm Brown, as he spent four years tackling him in practice as his high school teammate. Simmons has 45 tackles, 6.5 for loss and a pick. Joe Mitchell (6-3 225) also rotates through, and he has 31 stops, including 3 tackles for loss, on the year.
Oklahoma State has an athletic back end, thanks in large part to Justin Gilbert (6-0 200). One of the Big 12's fastest players, Gilbert has 26 tackles and leads the Big 12 in interceptions with four. Kevin Peterson (5-11 185) plays opposite Gilbert and picked off his first pass of the season last week against Kansas. When the Cowboys do go nickel, they trot out Kansas graduate transfer Tyler Patmon (5-10 190), who has three tackles for loss and eight passes broken up.
Daytawion Lowe (5-11 205) is a physical presence at safety, with Lowe currently ranking second on the team in tackles with 54. He has two interceptions as well. Strong safety Shamiel Gary (6-0 210) has 45 tackles and a team-leading nine passes broken up, though he didn't play last week with an injury. Lyndell Johnson (6-3 215) took his place. He has 34 tackles, four tackles for loss and two fumbles recovered.
Kip Smith (6-1 209) has been up and down in replacing the unbelievable Quinn Sharp. Smith has only averaged 40.3 yards per punt. But he has also served as the kickoff man for a unit that ranks first in the league in kickoff coverage.