Some might suggest that Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State Cowboys shut down the mighty Baylor offense simply because the Bear offensive machine was already slowing down itself. The Bears' two best offensive weapons, Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, were down with injuries. Likewise, the starting left tackle (Spencer Drango) and backup running back (Glasco Martin) were also unable to go for the Bears.
However, that hadn't stopped the Bears from dropping 41 points on Oklahoma and 63 points on Texas Tech. While OSU brought S&P+'s 15th ranked defense into a cold game against limping Baylor, that still hardly accounts for the way in which the 'Pokes totally dominated the Bear offense.
The Bears still had Antwan Goodley and had run for 255 yards against OU and another 340 against Texas Tech without Martin and Seastrunk, and Bryce Petty was still in consideration for the Heisman Trophy.
Against OSU, Baylor ran for only 94 yards at 2.6 yards per carry, Goodley managed 110 receiving yards but only averaged 7.9 yards per target, and Petty was held to 7.5 yards per attempt, many of those coming with the game safely beyond the reach of the Bears.
Is there hope after all for modern defenses? How did Glenn Spencer and his Cowboy D manage this miraculous performance?
They got a lot of help
Injuries weren't the only factor that went into the 'Pokes fantastic defensive performance. Baylor began every drive on its own side of the field, and six the Bears' first seven drives began inside the 26.
Additionally, the OSU offense put up points. The Cowboys took a 14-3 lead into the half and scored touchdowns on their first two drives after the half, putting the game at 28-3 and pretty well beyond the reach of the Bears.
While Baylor is known for its predilection for attempting to score every play, the Bears are largely dependent on the run game, both for attacking the middle of the field and setting up the play-action strikes that provide them with many of their long touchdown plays. Down 28-3 midway through the third quarter, it becomes difficult to accept the tradeoff in lost time in trying to finally establish the run.
Then there was also that strange stumble by Petty when he had a clear path to the end zone.
That quickly cost the Bears points and leverage to make different play calls later in the game.
Oklahoma State forced three turnovers and didn't hand the Bears the ball even once. They also had a key fourth-down stop in the third quarter, which left the Bears without points on one of their few good drives while the game was potentially in reach.
Third down stops
The dirty secret of the modern hurry-up spread option is that it's vulnerable on third downs. Hurry up teams love to get the defense on its heels on run downs with packaged concepts, but if you force them into third down, their offensive coordinators tend to slow down and allow the defense to make more exotic calls to take away specific features of an offensive attack.
The game is still only 7-0 in favor of Oklahoma State at this stage in the game. Baylor lines up in an empty set after a TV timeout, and OSU is matching the Bears with a dime package deployed in a "psycho" front that disguises who the blitzers will be.
The call proves to be a Fire Zone by the Cowboys, with five coming in the pressure. The corner, Kevin Peterson, tracks Goodley's motion into the backfield as the 'Pokes are matching Baylor's receivers with tight coverage.
Baylor is running one of its Veer-inspired run concepts; the line is blocking inside zone, but they are all blocking down and away from where the play is attacking the defense. Petty reads the unblocked defensive end; if that end gets wide, Petty will pull the ball down and run inside of him for the needed two yards. If the end crashes inside, he hands the ball off to Goodley screaming around the edge.
The problem is that while the defensive end is indeed crashing inside, linebacker Joe Mitchell (#29) is attacking the perimeter behind him. Had Petty kept the ball there would have been opportunities to his right to run for big yards behind his line, provided he evaded the crashing end.
For Goodley, there is nothing at all on the edge. He shockingly manages to shake free of Mitchell, but Peterson's pursuit still drags him down for a loss. Had he outrun Peterson there were still Cowboys waiting before the first-down marker to make the play.
They stayed one step ahead with their tactics
On the game's first two drives, OSU survived playing bend-don't-break Cover-2 that left them vulnerable to the fearsome Bear inside run game.
The wide alignments by the linebackers took away the in-breaking routes that comprise a sizable portion of the Bear playbook but left them in a tough spot to reach the inside gaps against schemes such as Inside Zone. However, OSU didn't allow runs in the first two drives to kill them, save for Petty's long scamper that ended in disaster for the Bears.
On this opening drive by the Bears, eventually an ill-advised outside run resulted in a tackle behind the line of scrimmage that set up Baylor with a third-and-long:
This is OSU's preferred third-down coverage, a Tampa-2 scheme with an eighth defender dropping into the shallow middle vacated by the middle linebacker dropping into the deep middle. When playing this coverage on third-and-long, the 'Pokes' defense is virtually impregnable, even against the likes of Baylor.
On the game's third drive, Glenn Spencer suddenly changed up the defensive gameplan before Briles and Petty could begin to tee off against the Cowboy strategies.
They rotated into Cover-1, press-man coverage with a single-deep safety and their two nickel-sized linebackers, Shaun Lewis and Joe Mitchell, stacked in the box and defensive backs matched up on the Bears' receivers. Baylor was unable to get going on the early downs and were set up for a third-and-long in which OSU got a coverage sack while playing its eight-man Tampa-2 coverage.
When the next drive ended with the Fire Zoned sweep play clipped above, Baylor adapted its attack plan for the rapidly changing tactics by OSU.
For the next several drives Baylor focused its attack around inside runs and play-action passing from three-receiver formations that lined up TE Jordan Navjar in the offensive backfield.
OSU's defensive response settled the game's outcome.
Outstanding play in the back 7
The 'Pokes were evidently totally unafraid of the Bear passing game, or at least they were inclined to make Petty prove he could punish them deep without Reese before they allowed the Baylor run game to get going.
They responded to Baylor's choice to use slightly heavier personnel with more man-free coverage.
By dropping the safety over the No. 2 receiver, OSU freed up Shaun Lewis to attack the line of scrimmage from the outside and force the runner into the linebackers. The Baylor slot receiver leveled Lewis from his blindside, but the safety then quickly replaced him on the edge. The pile-up on the edge and the weakside linebacker's pursuit kill the play. Defensive tackle James Castleman also beat a double team on the back-end, precluding the possibility of a QB cutback had Baylor pursued that option.
Sometimes they would line up back in their Cover-2 shell before rotating back into a single-high safety look:
While the entire OSU defense had a strong game, the play of their back seven was particularly excellent.
Observe the play of Sam linebacker, Shaun Lewis: he comes in as an extra run defender to force the ball inside but immediately gets back into a deep drop after reading the play-action fake. Petty has to hold onto the ball, then throw it away.
Many teams would be nervous about lining up safeties over Baylor's slot receivers or lining up their corners in press alignments for fear that Baylor would torch them with quick hitters over the middle to receivers running in stride. Because of the drops of the Cowboy linebackers, these passing windows were remarkably narrow for Bryce Petty, and he frequently overthrew receivers over the middle while attempting to navigate the linebackers.
Caleb Lavey set the tone early in the game, cutting off angles and nearly picking Petty on Baylor's second drive:
Although the Bears somehow managed to pick up eight yards, notice the range and awareness by Lavey on this play. It's play-action by the Bears, but after seeing that it's a fake, the Cowboy linebackers clearly understand from film study to follow Petty's eyes to the ball and keep their feet moving and the throwing lanes closed.
The ball hits Lavey in the hands, but he doesn't end up with the ball. Other OSU opponents have been less lucky -- the coverage-savvy middle linebacker has four interceptions this year.
Finally, there was the play of the Cowboy secondary. In the clips above you may have noticed that OSU used press coverage on the outside receivers almost the entire game. Inside breaking routes received help from the exceptional 'Poke linebackers, outside breaking routes were left to the DB's to manage:
On this key third down, OSU showed what appeared to be a Zero-blitz with no safety help. But after the snap, it transformed into a Cover-2. Since the safeties opened the snap pressed up on the inside receivers and bailed deep, the result of the play was almost as if they had been running cover-zero.
OSU was clearly expecting Baylor to attempt a slant over the middle and had those swallowed up by the late-dropping linebackers, but instead Clay Fuller went deep and outside against OSU's prize run-stuffing safety, Daytawion Lowe. Lowe has to defend the deep out from a press-bail technique instead of his usual deep alignment, but he hangs tight with the Bear and swats the pass away.
Much like with the MSU Spartans' aggressive coverages, Glenn Spencer and the Cowboys relied on winning percentages when Baylor tested them deep. If a team attacks you with press coverage and you take a few shots early in the game to punish them over the top, you better connect, or you may find yourself behind in the ballgame after killing drives with incomplete passes.
This is a deep and experienced defense
Glenn Spencer inherited nine players that play heavy snaps in the OSU base, nickel, and dime packages, including the star linebacker duo, Lewis and Lavey, their all-conference corner Justin Gilbert, and starting safeties Daytawion Lowe and Shamiel Gary.
As a result, the team is able to match fantastic Cover-2 and Tampa-2 zone defenses with press-man coverage and count on their pass defenders to not only understand all their assignments but also have high-level understanding of their own techniques and the tendencies of their opponents.
Now vaulted into the No. 8 spot in the Defensive S&P rankings, OSU has a dangerous combination of special teams and defensive play to potentially win the Big 12 (with a win against rival OU) and make a strong showing in a BCS bowl game.
They were able to stop the unstoppable Bears by coming at them with a diverse gameplan, disguises, exceptional fundamentals, and the ability to man up the lethal Bear passing game and survive relatively unscathed. If Briles could do it all again, I suspect he might attempt his same inside running/play-action passing attack from four-wide sets in the hopes of getting more room to operate in the middle of the field. Nevertheless, there's no denying that Spencer was a step ahead of him most of the game.
OSU had a lot of help from injuries, its own offense, and its own special teams, but by deploying a defensive backfield that could handle both zone and man coverage, having great disguise and tendency-hawking calls for third down, and fielding some great individual players, OSU has drawn up a blueprint for defensive design that may draw notice amongst other teams in the college football world
There may just be hope for defenses after all.