- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Despite the presence of Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden and an Oklahoma State passing attack that averages 386.2 yards per game, Stanford’s defense knows that the key to a good defense — no matter who is slinging and who is catching — starts with stopping the run.
“We are definitely concerned,” said defensive end Matt Masifilo. “I think they have a great running attack. The passing kind of overshadows the running game, but we are very aware of their ability to hit the big gaps with force.”
True, Oklahoma State runs a spread offense with a pass-first mentality. The Cowboys throw about 60 percent of the time. But Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith make up quite the terrible twosome. Randle carries the bulk of the load with 1,193 yards, 23 touchdowns and an impressive 6 yards per carry on 198 attempts. Smith spells him nicely and has 645 yards, nine touchdowns and a 7.2 average on 90 attempts.
“They dominate the line of scrimmage,” said Stanford co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason. “They are big, strong, and establish the line of scrimmage. They do a good job of making sure they get to the second level. In pass [protection], the quarterback does a good job of getting it out. But they are underrated in the run game. Those guys get to the second level and what do they do, they break tackles.
“For us, we have to tackle. I have seen 3- and 4-yard runs turn into 10- and 12-yard runs. And when they get in the red zone, they smell the end zone. Their running game is as good as anybody we have faced all year long. The merit can be pushed to the pass game. But if you underrate what they do run-wise, you can be falling asleep at the wheel.”
Just how explosive can Oklahoma State’s runners be? As a unit, they have seven touchdowns this season of 30 yards or more, including four touchdown runs of 59 yards or more two from Randle (62, 59), one from Smith (74) and a season-high 81-yard touchdown run from Herschel Sims. By contrast, Stanford has just one touchdown run longer than 40 yards this season.
“Traditionally, any defense, you always want to stop the run and make them one dimensional,” Masifilo said. “That’s the huge task, is making them one dimensional, stopping the run first and taking down the pass. It is a great opportunity and also a great challenge – one that will define the end of our season and also for a lot of us seniors.”
A little more on Randle; his 150 points represents the second best season in school history second only to Barry Sanders' 234 points. His 23 rushing touchdowns are second only to Sanders' 37. That’s twice his name has been mentioned alongside Sanders, so he's gotta be doing something right.
Smith, meanwhile, was supposed to be a short-yardage, goal-line type of back. He has about 15 pounds on the speedier Randle — yet he rushed for 140 yards on just seven carries against Texas and 77 yards on three carries against Baylor.
Linebacker Chase Thomas said all of this talk about offenses is starting to get a little old.
“We kind of felt disrespected as a defense,” Thomas said. “I’m sure their defense did as well, saying it will be an offensive shootout. Every time they say that, our defense is always going to be mad. That’s part of the game. They see both teams put up great offensive numbers all through the season. So we are expecting them to say that. I think we were pretty good this year in the points allowed per game so I think we should be all right.
“I’m not saying they’re not going to score points. I’m just saying I prefer it be a low-scoring game because that means we are playing good defense.”