You shouldn’t have to be told that defense has been an afterthought in the Big 12. A team led by the boisterous Mike Gundy, whose two-plus decades spent in Stillwater has culminated in a 2021 group knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, or, more aptly known as the “Pokes” in hometown circles, have begun to fire on all cylinders at the perfect time.
While Gundy has served as the poster child for the Cowboys since he took over head coaching duties in 2005, and is most well known for this rant back in 2007, it’s been the expertise of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles whose physical, aggressive approach to the defensive side of the football has the Cowboys playing with their hair on fire as they head into their Big 12 title game against No. 9 Baylor.
A former defensive end at Cornell, Knowles has provided an Ivy-League level of study and detail to Oklahoma’s defensive attack that has placed them alongside the country’s premier defensive units. Like, Georgia and Wisconsin-level good.
Two programs whose defense has represented the key to success this fall, Knowles’ group is the one you probably haven’t heard of. Ranked first nationally in sacks (49.0), tackles for loss (99), and third-down conversions (24.7%)—nearly 10 percentage points lower than the top-ranked Bulldogs (32.1%)—they also are fifth in scoring defense (16.4 PPG) and third in total defense behind only Kirby Smarts’ Dawgs and the Badgers. And although Knowles’ group has recorded only eight interceptions so far this fall—that slots them near the bottom-tier among Power 5 programs—it’s been the buy-in from players who, from an individual standpoint, understand their role, their job, and are executing to a T, that’s led to success.
A group vacant of highly-touted prep talents with four or five stars next to their name, it hasn’t mattered for Knowles, whose group of 11 are leading the charge for an Oklahoma State bid into the CFP. A unit carefully constructed where all 11 positions tout a player with at least four collegiate seasons under their belt, his veteran-laden defense has all the makings of a group destined to surprise.
While the conference has made its name for its gaudy over-under totals and weekly shootout-style of football, only four times over a full season has a Big 12 defense finished in the top 20 among all FBS programs. A unit that shocked the college football landscape after defeating their big brothers to the south last week, Oklahoma State has emerged from the overbearing shadow of the Sooners. After sitting at the kid’s table for far too long, Gundy’s group is playing inspired, violent football whose pace of play has come at their own, heart-thumping beat.
A program with 16 of its 19 all-time All-Americans on the offensive side of the ball, headlined by the Heisman Trophy-winning Barry Sanders, Knowles’ deployment of a 4-2-5 scheme that prioritizes space eaters and athletes able to make tackles in open grass has spotlighted some of the country’s most unheralded, All-Everything worthy defenders. The unit is led by fifth-year linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, whose background comes as a state champion in wrestling. He’s quickly found himself among the semifinalists for the Butkus Award (top LB) as the de facto anchor at the nucleus of Knowles’ defense.
A hard-nosed, passionate players coach, Knowles, alongside Gundy, have begun to write their own script this fall. In a small college town three-fourths the size of Disney World, Oklahoma State has ignored its conference stereotype and begun to trek its own path to glory this fall.