Negative plays kill drives.
Especially for a team like the Texas Longhorns that wants to run the football early and often to set up late-game success and the ability to play-action pass over the heads of cheating safeties, avoiding sacks and tackles for loss is even more important.
On Saturday morning in Stillwater, one of the biggest challenges against the Oklahoma State Cowboys will be avoiding single plays that end otherwise promising drives.
Against Cal, four critical second-half penalties did that work. Against Mike Gundy’s team, it may be a strong defensive line that does that work.
With 35 tackles for loss already, the Cowboys rank No. 9 nationally, generating nearly nine negative plays by the defense every game.
In the weather-delayed game against Pitt, Oklahoma State recorded 11, while Baylor was able to pull out another weather-delayed game in part because the Bears avoided those critical tackles for loss — the Pokes only recorded five in Waco.
The success in that area for Glenn Spencer’s defense is a little bit surprising.
After all, Oklahoma State lost Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Emmanuel Ogbah to the NFL after the standout defensive end recorded 17.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 19 quarterback hurries, and three forced fumbles in 2015.
On the other side of the line, Jimmy Bean turned in a workmanlike senior season to complement Ogbah — 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Coming in to the 2016 season, it was easy to expect some drop off, but Gundy and his defensive staff have recruited well along the defensive line and it’s paying off early.
The truly unexpected performer is redshirt sophomore defensive end Cole Waltersheid, a 6’6, 254-pounder who has put on nearly 45 pounds since arriving in Stillwater. A low three-star prospect, Waltersheid’s only other offers out of the tiny North Texas town of Muenster were from Boise State, North Texas, SMU, UTSA, and UTEP.
After dealing with injuries during the 2015 season, he’s now healthy and making an impact. And so while he’s not making a ton of tackles — only 10 so far on the season — the tackles that he’s making are impactful, with 5.5 tackles happening behind the line of scrimmage and two of those classifying as sacks.
More expected is the emergence of Ogbah’s replacement, 6’3, 270-pound redshirt sophomore Jarrell Owens. A physical specimen from Palestine, Owens was originally committed to TCU before flipping to Oklahoma State late in the 2014 class.
It’s easy to understand why Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson wanted Owens — he looks like a Jerry Hughes starter kit.
A back up to Ogbah last season, Owens is now starting and harassing opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers with 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks through the first four games. However, he is a little bit banged up after suffering an apparent shoulder injury in the Baylor game.
On the inside, the talent is remarkable for a program that has fallen off a little bit in recruiting with the rise of schools like TCU and Baylor.
Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor is a former San Antonio Madison prospect who couldn’t land an offer from Texas in the 2013 class, but has emerged as a multi-year starter. In 2015, his 48 tackles and 5.0 sacks were the most for an interior defensive lineman since Gundy became the head coach in 2005.
The good news for the ‘Horns is that Taylor is still a bit undersized at 278 pounds, which was one of the concerns when he left high school.
Another player Texas passed on was fellow defensive tackle Motekiai Maile. The Euless native was on the Longhorns radar out of Tyler Junior College in the 2015 class, but he never received an offer from Texas, either.
Unlike the other defensive tackles the ‘Horns faced over the last two games, Maile has prototypical size at 6’3 and 315 pounds. As a senior, he’s also physically mature and already has 2.0 tackles for loss, two passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry this season.
The other dangerous player on the interior is 6’0, 315-pound junior college transfer DeQuinton Osborne. The former Baylor signee is clearly undersized, but his squat frame could make it difficult for Texas freshman center Zach Shackelford to get under his pads and win the leverage battle. So far, Osborne has been even more effective than Maile — he’s registered 3.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack through his first four games in college.
Through a combination of good scouting, the big head-to-head win over TCU, and connections to the junior college ranks, Gundy has put together an impressive group of defensive linemen that have helped hold opponents to 3.5 yards per carry this season.
Two lesser opponents struggled mightily to run the football against the Cowboys and the Bears only managed 3.7 yards per carry last week.
In digging more deeply into the stats, two things stand out — Oklahoma State has given up some runs of 10 or more yards (22), but doesn’t give up long running plays, with only two rushing plays by opponents going for 30 or more yards so far this season.
This is a defense that will allow some seams, but can make the plays on the back end.
However, Pitt was able to have some success against Oklahoma State behind an experienced offensive line and big, bruising running back James Conner. The big plays, though, came from 5’8, 190-pound Quadree Henderson, including a 50-yard touchdown run by the diminutive wide receiver.
Texas hasn’t placed much of an emphasis on using the jet sweep game this season — Jerrod Heard is the only wide receiver with a carry — but the ‘Horns do certainly have two big backs in D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren who can approximate the style of the 6’2, 229-pound Conner.
The hope is that’s enough to get the Texas running game going against one of the Big 12’s best defensive lines.