Big 12: Shaun Lewis

Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer has a simple explanation to describe the change in his job in the past year.

“180 degrees,” he says.

At this time a year ago, Spencer was a new defensive coordinator with a defense full of veterans. From cornerback Justin Gilbert, a likely NFL draft first-round pick, to linebacker Shaun Lewis, an All-Big 12 performer, the Cowboys defense featured several players with plenty of experience. His task required fine-tuning and allowed him to be creative, with the understanding his experienced defense could handle the extra burden of additional schemes.

This spring has been much different as he prepares for his second season running the Pokes' defense. The unit, while talented, is young and inexperienced as they try to replace a group of seniors who started 239 combined games in a Cowboys uniform.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Spencer
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiOklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer admits that his young defense "keeps him up at night."
“Right now it keeps me up at night,” Spencer said midway through the spring. “I just want them to find within themselves what they’re all about, check their heartbeat out before they come out here [to practice] and find the right motivation for what they’re doing. That’s part of the fun part, watching a kid find that, so we just have to get more people to find that.”

Instilling mental toughness was a spring focus.

“It’s been a process the whole spring; it’s not a real surprise,” Spencer said. “We have some guys running with the first unit that haven’t earned a thing yet and there’s probably a sense of entitlement right now.”

Oklahoma State does have several returning defenders with experience, including defensive tackle James Castleman and cornerback Kevin Peterson, who both say they prefer to lead by example. So there is a potential vocal leadership void, but Spencer has been pleased with the spring progress of his youthful unit, even if it hasn’t reached the heights required for success this fall.

“We got a lot done,” Spencer said. “I’m still not happy, but we got a lot done. There was some improvement made -- a lot of it -- mostly in the tough situations we put them in, some adversity that happened and watching and studying and seeing yourself on tape and realizing what you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing doesn’t match up sometimes.”

If removing what Spencer had referred to as "a sense of entitlement" earlier in the spring has been achieved, then Oklahoma State can call this spring a success.

“Our perception of what we are and then what we are accomplishing is a lot different,” Spencer said. "Those things were huge, and we took a big step toward that.”

Even with their spring progress, the inexperience of the Cowboys defense will remain a storyline until the fall.

“There were a number of years where we had Joe [Mitchell] and Shaun and those guys you know about,” head coach Mike Gundy said. “When you’re experienced on defense, they can overcome speed, and they can overcome different tempos of offense and formations and movement. When you get in a game on that side of the ball, if you’re not real experienced, things that move around a little bit and you start paying attention to that, and then they snap the ball and you get out of your gap. We have to really pay attention as a coaching staff to that and put our players in positions to give them the best chance to have success early in the season.”
As we close in on national signing day, it’s an appropriate time to look back at how the top Big 12 recruits from four years ago performed.

2010 was a banner year for the Big 12 in recruiting, as the league collectively landed 23 from the ESPN 150.

A few, such as Jackson Jeffcoat, Ahmad Dixon and Shaun Lewis, became stars. Others washed out before their careers ever got off the ground.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsFormer five-star prospect Jackson Jeffcoat finished his career as the best defensive end in the Big 12.
Below is a closer look at what happened to ESPN 150 players who signed with Big 12 schools:

No. 2: Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas – Though he never reached a high level of team success, Jeffcoat had a great individual end to his career, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year honors and leading the league with 13 sacks.

No. 4: Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas – Hicks has been good when he has played. Because of multiple injuries, that hasn’t been often. Hicks missed most of last season with a torn Achilles, just a year after also being knocked out with a hip flexor injury. After getting a medical redshirt from his 2012 season, Hicks has one more year of eligibility remaining.

No. 13: Mike Davis, WR, Texas – Davis finished in the Big 12’s top 10 in receiving the last two seasons, compiling 200 career catches and 18 touchdown receptions.

No. 14: Taylor Bible, DT, Texas – Bible never played a down at Texas, leaving after his redshirt freshman season because of issues with grades. Bible ended up at Carson-Newman.

No. 15: Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor – Dixon had a tremendous tenure with his hometown school, earning All-Big 12 and All-American honors as a senior as Baylor captured its first Big 12 title in 2013.

No. 18: Demarco Cobbs, ATH, Texas – The Tulsa, Okla., native has appeared in 29 games on special teams and as a defensive reserve. He missed all of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

No. 20: Darius White, WR, Texas – After making just six catches his first two seasons, White transferred to Missouri. He caught just seven passes this season for the Tigers, but has another year of eligibility left.

No. 21: Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma – In his first season, Jefferson was the Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the year, and he was a three-year starter before leaving early to go pro.

No. 46: Ashton Dorsey, DT, Texas – After serving as a reserve throughout his career, Dorsey was projected to start this season, but he transferred out days before Texas’ season opener.

No. 48: Austin Haywood, TE, Oklahoma – After getting playing time as a third tight end early in his career, Haywood unexpectedly quit in the middle of the season, tried to earn his way back on the team, failed and ended up transferring to Central Arkansas. After getting suspended there, Haywood gave up football.

No. 62: Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma – Nelson shined early this season after finally getting a chance to be a full-time starter. That, however, was short-lived, as Nelson tore his pectoral muscle in an early October win over TCU and sat out the rest of his final season.

No. 65: Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma – The “Belldozer” starred his first two seasons as a situational, short-yardage QB. But in the preseason, Bell was beaten out by Trevor Knight for the starting job. Bell, however, still had his moments this season because of injuries to Knight. He led OU to a win at Notre Dame, then quarterbacked OU’s game-winning touchdown drive at Oklahoma State.

No. 72: Reggie Wilson, DE, Texas – He appeared in 51 games as a defensive reserve. Wilson had 19 tackles and a sack as a senior.

No. 73: Chris Jones, WR, Texas – Jones transferred out after one year, and never played.

No. 75: Shaun Lewis, LB, Oklahoma State – Lewis made an immediate impact, earning Big 12 co-Defensive Freshman of the Year honors along with Tony Jefferson. Lewis was a four-year starter and a big piece in Oklahoma State’s defensive turnaround this season.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsFormer ESPN 150 recruit Brennan Clay was a solid, not spectacular, tailback for the Sooners.
No. 77: Quentin Hayes, S, Oklahoma – After serving a year-long suspension, Hayes returned to win a starting job this past season. He has another year left.

No. 86: Tevin Jackson, LB, Texas – Jackson has been a backup linebacker for the Longhorns and will be part of the team’s great depth there in 2014.

No. 103: Adrian White, CB, Texas – Played in 17 games, then joined the mass transfer exodus from this Texas class.

No. 109: Ivan McCartney, WR, West Virginia – McCartney never became a No. 1 receiver, though he did contribute on West Virginia’s explosive offenses in 2011-12. He only had 12 catches this past season as a senior, however.

No. 114: Aaron Benson, LB, Texas – The cousin of former Texas running back great Cedric Benson has only been a contributor on special teams.

No. 122: Carrington Byndom, S, Texas – One of the few players from this Texas class to pan out. Byndom made 39 career starts and was a second-team All-Big 12 selection this past season.

No. 129: Brennan Clay, RB, Oklahoma – Clay proved to be a reliable and steady force in the OU backfield. He finished his career with 1,913 rushing yards, including 957 in 2013.

No. 134: Adrian Philips, ATH, Texas – Phillips settled in the Texas secondary, collecting 28 career starts there. He was second on the team this past season with 82 tackles.

No. 141: Trey Hopkins, OG, Texas – Hopkins became a stalwart up front, making 42 career starts along the offensive line. He was a two-time, second-team All-Big 12 selection.

No. 142: Justin McCay, ATH, Oklahoma – McCay transferred to Kansas after two years in Norman. He had nine receptions and a touchdown, which also was the first scoring catch by a Kansas wide receiver in almost two full seasons.
According to ESPN’s recruiting rankings, only Alabama and Florida have landed more four- and five-star players in the last four years than Texas.

In fact, other than Oklahoma, the Longhorns have signed roughly four times more four- and five-star players than every other program in the Big 12.

Success in the league, however, hasn’t hinged on who has been able to pile up the most four- and five-star players. Instead, it has been about the teams who have been able to hit on the players who actually weren’t four- and five-star recruits.

[+] EnlargeJackson Jeffcoat
John Albright/Icon SMIJackson Jeffcoat was a first-team All-Big 12 selection this past season, the only one of 60 four- and five-star players Texas has signed in the past four years to achieve that status so far.
No two teams better underscored this premise this past season than Baylor and Oklahoma State.

True, both schools have enjoyed an uptick in recruiting lately.

In the last four years, the Cowboys rank third in the Big 12 in signing four- and five-star prospects with 16, including eight last year. Oklahoma State also has eight four-star recruits committed in this class.

Baylor ranks fourth in the league with 15 four- and five-star players in the past four classes, and the Bears have put together their best class yet in 2014.

But that hasn’t been the primary reason for either team’s recent surge.

Together, Baylor and Oklahoma State comprised 21 of the 59 (36 percent) players who earned first- or second-team All-Big 12 honors. As a result, the Bears and Cowboys both pulled off double-digit winning seasons.

But of those 21 players, only three – Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango and safety Ahmad Dixon and Oklahoma State linebacker Shaun Lewis – were former four- or five-star players signed by the Bears or Cowboys out of high school (Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk and Oklahoma State defensive tackle Calvin Barnett were four-star prospects out of high school, but both players transferred in -- Seastrunk from Oregon and Barnett from junior college via Arkansas).

Meanwhile, of the 60 four- and five-star players Texas has signed in the last four years, only defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat was a first-team All-Big 12 selection this season.

And while Jeffcoat was also the co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, the Longhorns lost to Oklahoma State at home 38-13. Then fell at Baylor 30-10.

This week, fans across the Big 12 will be abuzz with how many four- and five-star recruits their schools end up signing.

But as this season showed, success on the field isn’t just about getting the four- and five-star players. It’s about getting the future stars that aren’t.

 
Oklahoma State was one win away from its second Big 12 championship in three seasons. Yet the Cowboys ended the year with back-to-back losses that cast a disappointing shadow over their season. The preseason Big 12 favorite finished 10-3 with losses to West Virginia, Oklahoma and Missouri but had to clear some hurdles to win double-digit games for the fourth time in five seasons.

Offense: A-

It seems like OSU’s offense took a clear step backward during Mike Yurcich’s first season as offensive coordinator. Yet the Cowboys finished among the top 3 in the Big 12 in most categories, including points per game (39.1), yards per game (448.8) and yards per play (5.9). But their struggles in key moments, like the road loss at West Virginia and on third down (38.6 percent conversion rate, sixth in the Big 12 and No. 60 among FBS teams), drops this grade to an A-.

Quarterback Clint Chelf saved the offense with his performance in the second half of the season, although he experienced some ups and downs of his own at various times. OSU’s receivers were among the deepest in the Big 12 with Charlie Moore, Jhajuan Seales, Tracy Moore and Josh Stewart each looking like top targets at different points in 2013 making the receiving corps the strongest group on the offensive side of the ball.

The Cowboys running game was the main area where the Pokes took a clear step backward, rushing for 171.9 yards per game and losing the balance their offenses had become known for during recent years. Inconsistency at running back and along the offensive line played a major role in those problems.

Defense: A+

For the first time in recent years the Cowboys defense was the foundation of their success. The Cowboys finished atop the Big 12 in several defensive categories including points per game (21.9, No. 19 among FBS teams), third down conversion rate (31.4 percent, No. 7 among FBS teams) and passing yards per attempt (5.8, No. 10 among FBS teams).

[+] EnlargeJosh Stewart, Andrew Wilson
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma State receiver Josh Stewart, who announced earlier this week that he's entering the 2014 NFL draft, was the top playmaker for the Cowboys this season.
Veteran leadership from linebacker Caleb Lavey, defensive tackle Calvin Barnett and safety Daytawion Lowe made life easier for Glenn Spencer during his first season as defensive coordinator. Barnett was the anchor of a quality defensive line, Lavey joined Shaun Lewis to create a playmaking duo at linebacker and Lowe joined elite cornerback Justin Gilbert as anchors in the secondary.

OSU’s defense had its share of struggles, particularly late in the season, but it was one of the Big 12’s best units from beginning to end.

Special teams: D+

OSU’s special teams cost them a game against West Virginia and didn't help the cause in the team's Bedlam loss. Overall, the special teams unit was below average for the majority of the season. The Cowboys finished at the bottom of the Big 12 in field goal percentage (61.1 percent) and net punting (34.3 net yards per punt). Only the dynamic punt return skills of Stewart and the sheer speed of Gilbert on kick returns kept this grade from being an F.

Overall: B+

Some people will look at this team and say it underachieved while others could look at it and say it overachieved. Problems along the offensive line handcuffed the offense for a good portion of the year and Chelf spending a portion of the year on the sidelines didn’t help. But the Cowboys still found a way to win 10 games and were one drive from winning another Big 12 title.

STILLWATER, Okla. -- With nine minutes still to be played, America’s top offense finally had enough.

So instead of going for another seemingly hopeless fourth-and-long, Baylor called its record-setting offense to the sideline and sent out the punt team. On the other side of the field, sensing the capitulation, Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer began hopping up and down, slapping the helmet of any defender passing by his general vicinity.

The 10th-ranked Cowboys always believed they could knock off fourth-ranked Baylor. But nobody, from "College GameDay" guest picker Marcus Smart to the Cowboys themselves, thought they would put the mighty Bears away before the fourth quarter.

Yet, Saturday night before a sold-out Boone Pickens Stadium, Oklahoma State did exactly that, pummeling Baylor into submission 49-17 to ensure the Big 12 title will go through Stillwater.

Again.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty, Daytawion Lowe, Tyler Johnson
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiThe Oklahoma State defense bottled up Bryce Petty and the high-flying Baylor offense all night.
“We weren’t intimidated,” said Cowboys linebacker Caleb Lavey. “And we were able to shut them down.”

No defense had slowed the Bears down all year, much less shut them down.

Baylor came into the night leading the nation with 61 points per game. After three quarters in Stillwater, the Bears had managed a single field goal.

“The Baylor offense deserved to get the pub it was getting,” Lavey said. “So being able to keep them off the board in touchdowns until the fourth quarter says a lot about this defense. Our defense did a great job.”

Great doesn’t do it justice. The Big 12’s best defense was dominant.

Head coach Mike Gundy said he felt Oklahoma State would need to score 35 points just to have a chance against Baylor. Thanks to his defense, the Cowboys needed only half that.

Even with All-American candidate Justin Gilbert limited to spot duty because of a shoulder injury, fellow cornerbacks Tyler Patmon and Kevin Peterson locked up Baylor’s speed-demon receivers in man-to-man coverage. The Bears, who led the country in completions of 30 yards or more, finished with just two such completions Saturday.

Up front, Oklahoma State tackles James Castleman and Calvin Barnett owned the line of scrimmage. Baylor, which had been averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground, was held to just 96 yards rushing with a paltry average of 2.6 yards per carry.

And in between, linebackers Lavey and Shaun Lewis came up with huge plays all night.

All told, the Cowboys forced three fumbles, including two from inside their own 5-yard line. In the first quarter two plays after Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty stumbled to the turf at the 1 after a 27-yard dash, Castleman batted the ball out of Shock Linwood’s hands, and recovered it himself. The Cowboys countered with a 99-yard touchdown drive to grab control and a 7-0 lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, Baylor finally drove the ball back to the Oklahoma State 2 with a chance to cut the deficit to 35-17. Instead, Petty fumbled a wild snap, and Patmon scooped it up and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown to put the Cowboys up 42-10.

After a three-and-nothing on its the next possession, Baylor punted, starting up the party on the Oklahoma State sideline.

“They’re a great team,” said Spencer, who mixed up eight-man coverages with exotic blitzes all game. “But our kids tonight executed and played great defense.”

Yet as good as it was, the Oklahoma State defense was hardly the whole story.

[+] EnlargeClint Chelf
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesOklahoma State QB Clint Chelf had a career day, throwing for 370 yards and accounting for four TDs.
Cowboy quarterback Clint Chelf remained on fire while outgunning Petty, Chelf's Heisman hopeful counterpart.

Chelf completed his first 12 passes, threw for a career-high 370 yards and accounted for four touchdowns as he continued his late-season charge since taking back over the starting job last month.

“He was accurate, and he made good decisions,” Gundy said. “I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s accomplished. He’s been a good leader, and he’s done it quietly. He's been humbled, and for that he's had success.”

Chelf lost the starting job two lackluster series into the season opener against Mississippi State. With J.W. Walsh in at quarterback, the offense languished, including in a 30-21 loss at West Virginia in a conference opener that looks more stunning by the week.

But since reclaiming the job on Oct. 26 at Iowa State, Chelf has been one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Last week, he delivered the second-highest QBR in the country in a 38-13 win at Texas.

Saturday, he was even better, throwing darts all over the field while picking apart Baylor’s secondary. Then in the third quarter, Chelf delivered the exclamation point, hauling in a throwback pass from Josh Stewart before racing 48 yards to the Baylor 5-yard line to set up a touchdown that put the Cowboys up 28-3.

“Chelf toughed everything out,” Stewart said. “He stayed with it. And tonight he was very impressive.”

So were the Cowboys, who before 2011 had only one conference title -- a three-way split in 1976 – in 58 years. After its stomping of the Bears, Oklahoma State is now one Bedlam win in Stillwater away from winning its second Big 12 title in three years.

“We have made great strides,” Gundy said. “The best way I can explain that is: I don’t know the last time we took the field and our players didn’t think we could win.”

Once again, the Cowboys took the field thinking they could win. They left it in control of the conference title. Again.

Under Spencer, OSU D on the attack

November, 14, 2013
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STILLWATER, Okla. -- The play indicative of the Oklahoma State defense’s past came in the waning moments against the Longhorns last year.

On a fourth-and-6, Texas quarterback David Ash completed a 29-yard pass with ease across the middle of the field. During the play, the Cowboys rushed only three. And boosted by the big pass, Texas ultimately came back to win.

But that was then.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Spencer
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiOklahoma State's defense has improved since Glenn Spencer has allowed a more attacking style.
Under first-year coordinator Glenn Spencer, Oklahoma State has finally shed the stigma of a bend-and-hope-not-to-break style this season. And now, heading into another Big 12 showdown with Texas this weekend, the Cowboys are playing defense at heights Stillwater hasn’t seen since the turn of the millennium.

“A lot of people can draw things up, but we’ve got good players that have allowed us to do some things we haven’t done in the past around here,” Spencer said. “Bottom line, we couldn’t do the things we’re doing if we didn’t have good players.”

The Cowboys certainly have good players. And with Spencer’s new aggressive approach, the Pokes are shutting the opposition down for the first time in a long while.

Nationally, Oklahoma State ranks just 20th in scoring defense and 37th in total defense. But those numbers don’t give the Cowboys their due.

Because they play alongside a fast-paced offense, the Cowboys have to defend more plays than most defenses. That’s why “next-level” analytics such as “points per drive” and “yards per play” better underscore the Pokes’ defensive resurgence behind Spencer.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cowboys rank sixth in the country in fewest points per drive allowed. They also rank ninth in yards per play allowed. Dating back to 2010, Oklahoma State hasn’t finished in the top 40 in either category.

Yet even some of the more traditional numbers suggest a steep upward trend.

The Pokes rank in the top 10 nationally in takeaways (ninth), third down defense (sixth) and red zone defense (ninth).

Put all that together, and it’s not difficult to see why the Cowboys have surged back into the Big 12 title race after an early-season loss at West Virginia. Only, for the first time in the Mike Gundy era, it isn’t the offense leading the charge.

“We’re not sitting back and letting offenses attack us,” senior safety Daytawion Lowe said. “We’re attacking them.”

The last time an Oklahoma State defense was on the attack, Rob Ryan was its defensive coordinator. Since Ryan bolted for the NFL in 2000, the Cowboys have shuffled through several coordinators to little avail.

Oklahoma State’s top defensive effort came behind Bill Young in 2011, when the Cowboys captured their first Big 12 title. The Pokes’ bending defense surrendered points and yards in droves. But they countered by leading the country in takeaways, setting up Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon with short fields.

Yet last season, the defense broke more than it bent. And the Cowboys closed out the regular season getting gashed by Oklahoma and Baylor, prompting Young to step down and Gundy to make another change.

Gundy had always looked outside the program for offensive coordinators, bringing in Dana Holgorsen, Todd Monken, and, most recently, Mike Yurcich all the way from Division II Shippensburg.

But to resurrect his defense, Gundy looked within, and promoted Spencer from linebackers coach to coordinator.

“I liked his demeanor, his style of coaching, how he dealt with his players,” Gundy said. “He’s a very smart coach.”

Gundy also liked Spencer’s plan for a defensive turnaround. No longer would the Cowboys rush three on critical downs. Nor would they play their corners 10 yards off the ball due to the fear of getting beat deep.

“We talked about that the first meeting we had,” Spencer said. “To do that, you can get exposed really fast. They’re getting challenged every day, because of things we as a defensive staff are asking them to do. But play in, play out, we also wanted them to feed on that.”

Despite living on an island, Oklahoma State cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Kevin Peterson have held up well. In fact among Big 12 teams, only Oklahoma has allowed fewer plays of 40 yards or more.

“We’re challenging the receivers,” Peterson said. “And that aggressiveness has really allowed everything to come together.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the defense has fed on Spencer’s assertive approach.

“The effort and excitement is everywhere -- guys want to make plays,” senior middle linebacker Caleb Lavey said. “No one wants to sit back and let someone else make a play. We have 11 guys on defense that are hungry and want to make big plays.”

No one has played with more hunger than Lavey, who has gone from Bedlam goat, to the short list for Big 12 defensive player of the year.

Last year, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell ran through Lavey for a goal-line touchdown to send the game to overtime, where the Sooners prevailed.

This year, Lavey has become the cornerstone of Spencer’s defense, leading the Cowboys in tackles and tackles-for-loss.

“A lot of them like him have been through those storms, those valleys,” said Spencer, who has had the Cowboys meet as a defense more than in the past to help build unity and accountability.

“I’ve been around and seen them, heard them and felt them get beat up, unwarranted in my opinion in a lot of cases. I just wanted to work so hard for them to achieve some success and some realization of their hard work.”

That hard work is finally coming to a realization. And Saturday, the Cowboys have a chance to show just how far they’ve come since Ash’s fourth-down pass.

“Coach Spencer has given us that identity,” Lowe said. “This last stretch, that’s going to be the real test.

“But we’re on our way.”
The goal board sitting in the Oklahoma State meeting room is a consistent reminder of the team's turnover goal each time it takes the field: Four turnovers per game.

[+] EnlargeCaleb Lavey
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsCreating turnovers has been a big part of Caleb Lavey and Oklahoma State's defensive success.
A simple goal. A lofty expectation.

That expectation is translating into results as the Cowboys have forced 22 turnovers this season, tied for 11th in the FBS. Their plus-10 turnover margin leads the Big 12 and is tied for fifth in the BCS, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

“We talk about it before every game, before every practice,” linebacker Shaun Lewis said. “The bottom line is effort. We want to bust our tails to the ball because we want to have as many Oklahoma State players around it as possible so the percentages of getting those turnovers go up.”

Turnovers have played a key role in several games this season. The Cowboys rode five second-half turnovers to a 33-29 win over Kansas State and a forced fumble helped OSU grab the early momentum and a 21-0 lead against Texas Tech in its 52-34 win last week.

While the Cowboys turnover trend may seem like luck, it’s not. It’s a calculated plan.

“I didn’t really realize the significance and importance of turnovers until I got to OSU,” senior linebacker Caleb Lavey said. “When you’re playing in the Big 12 and offenses can move the ball up and down the field [and] are high powered, it is a huge advantage to take a turnover form that offense and give [the ball] to our own. I learned quickly how important it was to defense and winning.”

As soon as Lewis and Lavey arrived in Stillwater, turnovers rose up the priority list in their minds.

“I don’t think I had one turnover in my high school career,” Lewis said. “As soon as I got here, everything just changed. Coaches take the time in practice to work on it. It can have huge implications, you get a turnover in a game, that changes everything. As soon as I got here, they stressed it and ever since I got here it’s been a priority.”

Forcing turnovers has been the foundation of the Cowboys' defense for several seasons. OSU ranks No. 3 nationally in forced turnovers since Mike Gundy took over the program in 2005 with 243, trailing Oregon (273) and Boise State (252).

When the Cowboys won their first outright Big 12 title in 2011, turnovers played a major role as they led the nation with 44 forced turnovers. Their turnover numbers dropped a season ago as OSU forced 22 turnovers in 2012 but its habit of getting turnovers has returned this season. The Cowboys' 22 turnovers tie for the Cowboys’ second most through eight games since 2000 (they had 29 in 2011). Much like that 2011 defense, this season’s opportunistic defense has put OSU in position to win a Big 12 title.

“It’s become so important for this group so it’s really similar,” said Lavey, a starter on the 2011 squad. “One thing about all the turnovers we had that year [2011] and this year is moving to the ball. One thing we really talk about is being able to force turnovers comes from effort to the ball. If the ball is stripped out, how many Oklahoma State defenders are around to get it? If the ball is in the air, how many guys are around to pick it or tip it up to another guy?”

It all starts in practice, where the Pokes' defense has a goal of getting five turnovers per practice. If they don’t, they run. That mentality is one reason OSU has forced a turnover in 13 straight games dating back to last season, second in the Big 12 to West Virginia (15).

“If you don’t reach your goal, you get the consequences,” Lavey said. “It’s not just giving the ball to the offense, it’s a huge momentum booster. It was a weapon we didn’t really have much last year so emphasizing it this year is a huge advantage for our defense.”

Gundy clearly recognized the importance of turnovers when he took over at his alma mater. Under Gundy, the Cowboys are 44-5 and have won 31 of 32 games since 2009 when winning the turnover battle. And as their turnover numbers rose, so did their winning percentage, as the team's 78.3 winning percentage since 2009 leads the Big 12.

“It’s engrained into the DNA of the defense here,” Lewis said. “It’s always in the back of our mind.”

Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
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And then there were four in the conference race:

1. Baylor (7-0, 4-0 Big 12, last week: 1): The Bears have been complaining about a lack of national respect. Thursday night against Oklahoma, they have their chance to gain that respect. It should be noted, though, that Baylor has never played in a game with major conference and national title implications on the line -- and the whole country watching. The Sooners have played in dozens of these games. Are the Bears ready to shine in the spotlight? We’re about to find out.

2. Oklahoma State (7-1, 4-1 Big 12, last week: 5): Look who’s back in the thick of the Big 12 title conversation. On Saturday, the Cowboys delivered the most impressive Big 12 win of any team this season, dominating Texas Tech before a record crowd in Lubbock. Behind linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis, the OSU defense continues to perform at a high level, as they limited Tech to just three touchdowns in 17 possessions. The OSU offense is now beginning to click, too, with QB Clint Chelf making the big plays he did down the stretch like last season and backs Desmond Roland and Rennie Childs reviving the running game. The Cowboys are the only contender that get Baylor at home, and they have dominated the Bears in Stillwater. OSU still has to go to Austin on Nov. 16. But the Cowboys just proved they can win big games on the road.

3. Texas (6-2, 5-0 Big 12, last week: 2): It wasn’t a work of art, but Texas took care of business against Kansas. Next up is a sneaky-tough road game in Morgantown. West Virginia has been a much tougher team at home. The Mountaineers knocked off Oklahoma State and led Texas Tech by double digits in the second half before succumbing in the fourth quarter. West Virginia will also be playing with plenty of momentum after its overtime win at TCU. A showdown with Oklahoma State in Austin looms the following weekend. But Texas needs to escape Morgantown first.

4. Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1 Big 12, last week: 3): After struggling in conference play, Blake Bell seemed to turn a corner with a determined performance in last week’s win over the Red Raiders. To have any chance of scoring with Baylor, the Sooners are going to need a similar effort from their quarterback. The running game should be able to pile up yards. And the OU secondary will give Baylor’s speedy receivers their biggest challenge yet. But to pull off the upset as double-digit underdogs in Waco, Bell will have to make the same kind of throws downfield he delivered against Tech.

5. Texas Tech (7-2, 4-2 Big 12, last week: 4): Considering the Red Raiders were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 in the preseason, this has already been a banner first season for coach Kliff Kingsbury. But the past two weeks, Tech’s flaws have been exposed. The defense hasn’t been able to stop the run without overloading the box. True freshman QB Davis Webb is making true freshman mistakes. And the depth doesn’t seem to be there for Tech to be sound covering punts and kicks. This is still a good team. But as it turned out, just not yet good enough to contend for the conference title.

6. Kansas State (4-4, 2-3 Big 12, last week: 6): Since the return of receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, the Wildcats have featured an efficiently balanced offensive attack. K-State threw for 221 yards and ran for 227 while picking apart Iowa State’s defense. The K-State run defense has been excellent the past month, too. This is not a team anyone will want to face this last month of the season.

7. West Virginia (4-5, 2-4 Big 12, last week: 7): What a win for Dana Holgorsen’s bunch. The Mountaineers seemed to be dead in the water after falling behind 17-3 in Fort Worth. But behind running back Charles Sims and an eight-minute stretch where the Mountaineers forced TCU into three turnovers in five plays, West Virginia emerged with a crucial overtime victory. Had the Mountaineers lost, more questions would have surfaced about Holgorsen’s status in Morgantown. Instead, West Virginia is in great shape to make a bowl game, which would be a solid season for a team that had to replace Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.

8. TCU (3-6, 1-5 Big 12, last week: 8): When does basketball season start? Wait, nevermind.

9. Iowa State (1-7, 0-5 Big 12, last week: 9): The Cyclones have not posed much of a threat offensively when running back Aaron Wimberly has not been in the lineup. If they can get him back from a hamstring injury, they could still pick up a couple of Big 12 wins down the stretch, which would give this program some momentum heading into next season.

10. Kansas (2-6, 0-5 Big 12, last week: 10): The Jayhawks have not rolled over in Big 12 play, which has to be an encouraging sign for coach Charlie Weis. It would be huge for the program for that effort to manifest tangibly in the form of an actual win. If Kansas keeps playing hard, it just might get it.

Big 12 lunchtime links

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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Oklahoma and Texas will wear uniforms with gold trim on Saturday. The Longhorns will wear orange jerseys with gold trim, while the Sooners will sport white jerseys with gold trim.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 6

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
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Taking stock of Week 6 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: Baylor. This is starting to get ridiculous. Despite the uptick in opponent, the Bears scored more than 70 points for the third consecutive week, becoming the first FBS team to do so since 1930. The offense has overshadowed how well the defense has also been playing. Baylor, which gave up 70 in Morgantown last year, limited West Virginia to just two offensive touchdowns through three quarters. By that point, the Bears led 66-21. Can anyone stop these guys?

Disappointment of the week: West Virginia. Nobody really expected the Mountaineers would go to Waco and win as four-touchdown underdogs. But this was a litmus test for a defense that had been pretty solid through the first month of the season. Well, the West Virginia defense failed the test miserably, giving up a Big 12-record 864 yards of offense. Baylor had four turnovers and committed 100 yards' worth of penalties. And the Bears still scored 73 points.

[+] EnlargeLache Seastrunk
AP Photo/Jose YauBaylor's Lache Seastrunk contributed 172 of Baylor's whopping 468 rushing yards against West Virginia.
Big (offensive) men on campus: Baylor's offensive line. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said afterward he’d never seen a line establish the line of scrimmage the way the Bears did. Up front, Spencer Drango, Cyril Richardson, Stefan Huber, Desmine Hilliard and Kelvin Palmer paved the way for Baylor to rack up 468 yards on the ground against a defensive front that held Oklahoma State running back Jeremy Smith to just 1 yard on 15 carries a week ago. The Bears have been unstoppable so far, in large part because their offensive line has been paving lanes as well as any line in college football.

Big (defensive) men on campus: Shaun Lewis and Jason Verrett. The Oklahoma State linebacker and TCU cornerback showed over the weekend why they’re all-conference-caliber players. Lewis led the Cowboys with eight tackles, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass late in the fourth quarter. Lewis also chased down Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sams with a shoestring tackle in the open field on the Wildcats’ final drive that kept the clock ticking. Verrett, meanwhile, was fabulous in a losing effort at Oklahoma. Verrett had six tackles and two pass breakups, and he basically blanketed any receiver that lined up on his side of the field. TCU's defense dominated the Sooners in the third quarter, which allowed the Horned Frogs to climb back into the game despite a 13-0 halftime deficit.

Special-teams players of the week: Travis Britz and Kip Daily. The Kansas State duo came up with a huge play at Oklahoma State with 2:45 to go in the first half. Britz jumped up and blocked Ben Grogan’s 43-yard field goal attempt, and Daily grabbed the deflection and raced 65 yards for the touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead (Oklahoma State won the game 33-29). Daily is having quite the season. Three weeks ago, he was the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Week after picking off two passes against UMass. Placekickers Michael Hunnicutt and Ryan Bustin get honorable-mention honors here. Hunnicutt set an Oklahoma record with his 49th career field goal. After missing a 32-yard field goal at Kansas, Bustin bounced back to connect on four field goals and six extra points as Texas Tech routed the Jayhawks 54-16.

Play of the week: After getting completely shut down in the second half, the Sooners' offense finally got the play to put TCU away. With OU holding on to a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter, running back Brennan Clay got a carry to the left and then cut it back right 76 yards for a touchdown to basically put the game away with 4:37 to play. "We set it up the whole day," Clay said. "The [linebackers] were going over the top and the O-line did a great job just pressing the play, and I was fortunate enough to make the cut backdoor and the safety was a little flat-footed. I made a stutter step and just took it to the crib."

Stat of the week: After six weeks, Baylor QB Bryce Petty leads the nation in opponent-adjusted Total QBR, which takes into account the strength of the opposing defenses faced. Petty has a score of 97.7 (0-100 scale, 50 is average). Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is second (96.8) followed by Georgia’s Aaron Murray (95.6).

Quote of the week: “70 points, I guess, isn’t enough.” – Petty, on those who still doubt the Bears' offense

Big 12 helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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Recognizing the best and brightest from around the Big 12 in Week 6:

Baylor running backs: Bryce Petty was sharp as usual, but what a night for the Baylor rushing attack. In the 73-42 beatdown of West Virginia, it rushed for 468 yards and a whopping eight touchdowns on 7.5 yards per carry. Lache Seastrunk, the Big 12's leading rusher, put up an 80-yard score and 172 yards on 15 carries, backup Glasco Martin ran for 63 yards, No. 3 back Shock Linwood had 126 and Devin Chafin chipped in 56 yards. Big kudos to the Bear offense line for the mauling on Saturday.

RB Brennan Clay, Oklahoma: Clay locked up the Sooners' 20-17 win over TCU when he went 76 yards untouched to give OU a 10-point lead with less than five minutes left after the Frogs had cut the deficit to three points by the end of the third quarter. He finished with 111 yards on nine carries and is now the Big 12's third-leading rusher this season with 450 yards.

LB Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State: Turnovers were the key to the game in Oklahoma State's 33-29 win over Kansas State, and Lewis forced perhaps the most important one. On KSU's first play on offense after OSU had taken a 30-29 lead late, Lewis picked off an underthrown pass from Daniel Sams and picked up 21 yards. That set up Ben Grogan's field goal to go ahead by four. Lewis also led OSU in tackles with eight, had one tackle for loss and forced and recovered a fumble.

WR Eric Ward, Texas Tech: Fellow receivers Jace Amaro and Jakeem Grant are both worthy recipients this week, but we'll go with Ward because he broke out of a slump with seven catches for 122 yards and a touchdown in a win over Kansas. Six of his receptions went for first downs, and his touchdown was a 25-yarder in the fourth quarter. Amaro finished with 96 yards, and Grant added 92.

QB Bryce Petty, Baylor: Petty threw the first interception of his career, which he said will haunt him for the next week, but the junior made up for that rare moment of weakness with 347 passing yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for another score. His night was over after one third-quarter drive, and Petty has still yet to play a four-quarter game thanks to Baylor's blowout wins.

Big 12's 2014 impact freshmen 

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
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More than ever we are seeing a growing number of freshmen make instant impacts across the college football landscape. Here is a look at a few freshmen that could make a difference for their respective Big 12 programs in 2014.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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Taking stock of what happened in Week 1 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: Oklahoma State. By knocking off SEC opponent Mississippi State, the Cowboys delivered the Big 12 its best win of the opening weekend. Oklahoma State did it with defense, too, suggesting this could be the best unit Mike Gundy has had in Stillwater.

Biggest disappointment: Kansas State. Losing to an FCS team hurts. But the way the Wildcats lost has to hurt worse. North Dakota State went on an 18-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that left just a few seconds on the clock to prevail 24-21. The Wildcats led 21-7 in the third quarter but were dominated the rest of the way. The way the Bison ran between the tackles has to be especially troubling going forward, considering stopping the run has been a calling card for Bill Snyder teams.

Robert Seals
AP Photo/LM OteroTexas Tech freshman Baker Mayfield (6) had quite a debut against SMU.
Big (offensive) man on campus: Texas Tech QB Baker Mayfield. A couple of weeks ago, the college football world had never heard of Mayfield. They have now. The walk-on true freshman completed 43 of 60 passes for 413 yards and accounted for five touchdowns. Kliff Kingsbury might have uncovered his quarterback of the future.

Big (defensive) men on campus: Oklahoma LBs Corey Nelson and Shaun Lewis. Both seniors had big openers in their teams’ big defensive performances. Lewis had three tackles for loss and a sack. Nelson had two tackles for loss and a sack and was constantly in Louisiana-Monroe’s backfield. Combined, the Sooners and Cowboys allowed just one field goal.

Special-teams player of the week: TCU’s B.J. Catalon. The Horned Frogs running back delivered a 100-yard kickoff return in the second quarter that put TCU back in the game after a lackluster first quarter against LSU. Catalon also reeled off a 26-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and finished with 52 yards rushing and 22 yards receiving.

Play of the week: Oklahoma State QB J.W. Walsh’s second-quarter dash. With the Cowboys trailing 3-0 late in the second quarter, Walsh took an option keeper down the left sideline 46 yards to the Mississippi State 14-yard line. Another keeper put the ball at the Bulldogs' 3, and he carried the ball into the end zone two plays later to give Oklahoma State its first lead. Walsh led Oklahoma State with 125 rushing yards.

Stat of the week: Trevor Knight became the first Oklahoma quarterback under Bob Stoops to have more rushing yards than passing yards in a game. Knight ran for 103 yards and passed for 86. The last Sooners QB to rush for more than he passed for in a game was Eric Moore in 1998.

Quote of the week: “Now will you believe me when I say we're not very good? That's what I've been trying to tell you.” -- Kansas State coach Bill Snyder
During the offseason, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops defiantly dismissed the SEC’s supposed superiority over the Big 12 as pure “propaganda.”

“They’ve had the best team in college football,” Stoops bristled, when asked how the Big 12 could narrow the gap with the SEC.

“They haven’t had the whole conference.”

That theory will be put to the test on the field this weekend, as two neutral-site, Big 12-SEC showdowns highlight the opening Saturday of college football.

[+] EnlargeGary Patterson
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesGary Patterson and TCU could make a huge statement about the strength of the Big 12 with a win over LSU on Saturday.
Preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State will meet Mississippi State at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Later that night, TCU will take on LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“Any time you get a chance to play a team in the SEC,” said Oklahoma State wide receiver Tracy Moore, “you have something to prove.”

Which is why for the SEC, it’s just another Saturday. For the Big 12, it’s way more. One conference has nothing to prove; the other, most definitely something.

Justified or not, the Big 12 has been fighting a losing battle lately with the SEC in the court of public perception, which anymore is -– and will be -– half the battle in college football.

Just ask Mike Gundy, whose Cowboys lost out to Alabama for a berth in the BCS title game two years ago, even though Oklahoma State had three more wins over ranked opponents than the Crimson Tide did.

"I don’t think there’s any question the Mississippi State game is a big game," Gundy said. "The way the BCS is set up and eventually with the [playoff], these games factor in. If we as an administration decide to play these games, then you have to be ready for that to factor in the nation's perspective of your football team after that game. I don’t think it’s going to be any other way.”

For the Big 12, the national perspective has not been flattering. Even though nine Big 12 teams were good enough to go to bowls last season -– the crux of Stoops’ counterargument -– none apparently were good enough to begin in the Associated Press' Top 10 for the first time in the history of the conference.

“I do think our league has not gotten the credit nationally it deserves,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “As we keep looking at it over the next couple of years, the Big 12 will gain that respect.”

The Big 12 doesn’t have to wait years. Only days, as the weekend offers a prime opportunity for the league to show it can go toe-to-toe against college football’s preeminent conference.

“The only thing that should be talked about is what happens on Saturday –- and that will be the only way we’ll ever change all that,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “The only way we’ll ever catch the SEC -– if that is true that we’re behind them –- is you’ve got to play them.”

Credit the Big 12 for at least doing that.

On top of this weekend’s SEC tilts, Texas will play host to Ole Miss in two weeks. In 2014-15, Oklahoma has a home-and-home with Tennessee; Texas Tech, the same with Arkansas.

The Big 12 has also signed three bowl agreements with the SEC, including the Champions Bowl, which will pit the two best non-playoff teams from each conference against one another in New Orleans.

But there’s a difference between scheduling the SEC and defeating it.

“That’s always been the best way,” Patterson said. “We have to prove when we get the opportunity to play well or win. That’s the key. Obviously, you can’t have what it looked like in the Cotton Bowl, either.”

The last decade of Cotton Bowls, for that matter.

The SEC has won nine of 10 meetings over the Big 12 in the Cotton Bowl, which has been the highest profile bowl game between the two conferences. The SEC’s average margin of victory in those nine wins is two touchdowns, which, of course, includes Texas A&M’s 28-point annihilation of Oklahoma last season.

To stop the hemorrhaging, the Big 12 can ill-afford for two of its contenders to get taken out on national television by programs projected to finish third and sixth in the SEC West.

“It would be something we’ll never be able to overcome, at least until we got another opportunity,” said Cowboys defensive tackle Calvin Barnett, who signed with Arkansas out of high school. “At the end of the day, we are representing the Big 12. It’s a big week for us.”

The Big 12 can’t narrow the entire SEC superiority gap in a week, whether that gap is real or propaganda. But in a day, TCU and Oklahoma State can prove the Big 12 is deserving of more respect.

“The SEC, they deserve the respect they get,” Cowboys linebacker Shaun Lewis said.

“Hopefully we can earn some, too.”

Oklahoma State season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
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Today we continue our Big 12 preview by taking a look at Oklahoma State, the preseason media favorite to win the league in 2013.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Coach: Mike Gundy (67-35, 8 seasons; 67-35 at OSU, 8 seasons)

2012 record: 8-5 (5-4 Big 12)

Key losses: RB Joseph Randle, K Quinn Sharp, QB Wes Lunt, OL Lane Taylor, CB Brodrick Brown, LB Alex Elkins

[+] EnlargeJosh Stewart
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Josh Stewart was one of the top receivers in the Big 12 last season as a sophomore.
Key returnees: WR Josh Stewart, DT Calvin Barnett, CB Justin Gilbert, LB Shaun Lewis, S Daytawion Lowe, QB Clint Chelf, S Shamiel Gary, LB Caleb Lavey, WR Tracy Moore, QB J.W. Walsh

Newcomer to watch: The Cowboys have considerable depth at wide receiver entering the fall, but Ra'Shaad Samples could have a breakthrough debut season. The freshman from Dallas was an Under Armour All-American and ran a 4.32 in the 40 this summer.

Biggest games in 2013: A lot could be on the line at Bedlam this year when Oklahoma comes to town on Dec. 7. Texas, TCU and Baylor will all be tough conference tests, and OSU doesn’t start off with a cupcake: The Cowboys will travel to Houston to take on Mississippi State on Aug. 31.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can the Cowboys win the close ones this year? It’s anyone’s league in 2013, and preseason favorite Oklahoma State could struggle to win it outright if the team can’t get it done in the big games like last season. A five-point loss to Texas, three-point overtime defeat against Oklahoma and seven-point loss at Baylor accounted for three of OSU’s five losses last fall. Perhaps more stability at the quarterback spot after juggling three in 2012 will help put the Pokes over the top.

Forecast: Preseason prognostication is all about paper, about how good a team’s projected depth chart looks, and how tough a schedule appears before pads are even put on. On paper, Oklahoma State looks like a potentially great team in 2013.

The Cowboys bring back 15 starters, including perhaps the Big 12’s best receiver (Stewart) and defensive tackle (Barnett). Either Chelf or Walsh could win the starting job and OSU would still have one of the league’s best passers behind center. The cupboard of talent looks pretty stocked.

Mike Gundy finds himself in an enviable position with his preseason Big 12 favorites, but there will be several challengers to the throne. His Cowboys have a chance to go 9-0 if they knock off TCU at home. The final stretch -- Texas, Baylor, Oklahoma -- is tricky, but two games are at home and there’s a bye before OU. The Pokes have the talent and the schedule needed to win this league, there’s no doubt about that.

There are really two big question marks that must be overcome, questions OSU fans are no doubt tired of asking. The first surrounds the team's two new coordinators, including its fourth new offensive coordinator in five years. What will Mike Yurcich, the intriguing hire from Division II’s Shippensburg, bring to the table?

The second is the defense. New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer has to fix up a unit that held up well in victory last season but gave up 47.2 points per game in its five defeats.

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