No easy fix for Oklahoma State's ailing pass coverage Cowboys relying on freshmen and sophomores in the defensive backfield
STILLWATER — In the final minute of the first half, Oklahoma State was one play away from a small win. Iowa State faced a third-and-9 from OSU's 26-yard line, and an incomplete pass would force a long field goal — ensuring that, at worst, the Cowboys would be down five points Oklahoma State at Kansas State heading into the locker room.
The Cowboys made their defensive call, playing 2-man — meaning the two deep safeties split the deep area of the field in half, while the other defenders play man coverage. In this case, Kolby Peel and Malcolm Rodriguez were at safety.
Somehow, Matthew Eaton still got behind the defense. Peel, a freshman, tried to close but never got close enough to attempt to make a play. Rodarius Williams, the cornerback, didn't turn around. Eaton made a terrific catch while falling on his backside.
Iowa State went ahead 30-21 on a play that should not have worked.
“Should have been an interception,” coach Mike Gundy said. “It's a true freshman and he got caught, froze for a second and that's what happened. He came off the field, he knew it. I said, `You're in 2-man.' He said,
`I know, I should have got more depth, should have been over the top.' But unfortunately, it just happened 25 seconds ago.
“When we're in 2-man, the safety doesn't have any work. He's backpedaling, staying deeper than the deepest, and as soon as the ball is in the air he turns and runs. Tre Flowers, that's an interception.”
Peel wears Flowers' No. 31, but the uniform didn't come with the three-plus years of starting experience Flowers took with him to the Seattle Seahawks. He, like freshman Jarrick Bernard and sophomores Thabo Mwaniki and Rodriguez, are learning on the job. And they're doing it while trying to grasp a new scheme brought by defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Senior Kenneth Edison-McGruder is the lone veteran at safety, but his playing time fluctuates depending on the situation.
“Needs to play a little more, probably, but if you get in a position where he has to be deeper more in coverage, then there's limitations there,” Gundy said. “That's not his world.”
This is the unfortunate situation the OSU defense finds itself stuck in as the Cowboys trek to Manhattan, Kansas, for a date with Kansas State at 11 a.m. Saturday. While OSU leads the country in sacks with 28, and has one of the best individual pass-rushers in the country in Jordan Brailford, its lack of experienced players is glaring against Big 12 teams that like to throw the football.
A month ago, hardly anyone knew the names Alan Bowman, Carter Stanley and Brock Purdy. But the Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State quarterbacks, respectively, completed 77-of-101 passes against Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys aren't surrendering the home-run plays — only two of 50-plus yards — that sometimes plagued them in the past. But perhaps what's happening this year is worse: Teams are picking up 20yard chunk after chunk without much resistance.
Oklahoma State has allowed 29 pass plays of 20-plus yards. Only four teams — Louisiana-Monroe, Rice, Connecticut and Kent State — have given up more.
Twenty of those have come in the past three games. That's nearly seven pass completions of 20plus yards per game.
Until it's fixed, no number of sacks will help OSU overcome it.
“They've got to be really disciplined and structured in their eyes,” Gundy said of OSU's safeties. “They get caught looking around at times. It doesn't surprise me, but I wish we had answers for it, meaning more mature players at that position where these guys wouldn't be playing. That's not going to happen.”
In an ideal scenario, Oklahoma State's secondary would be full of players it signed three or four years ago — juniors, seniors and redshirt seniors who have the aforementioned experience.
In 2014, Oklahoma State signed five defensive backs. Four never started a game for the Cowboys and aren't in the program (one, Dylan Harding, retired for medical reasons). The other, Ramon Richards, played as a freshman — just like Bernard and Peel — and finished his career last season.
Four of the six defensive backs signed in 2015 are on the current roster. Only one — Edison-McGruder — is a starter. Kevin Henry moved to linebacker and has fought through injury, while Za'Carrius Green and Bryce Balous remain reserves at safety and cornerback, respectively.
The 2016 class — which includes present-day juniors or redshirt sophomores — included the two starting corners, Williams and A.J. Green.
But four of the five safeties OSU uses signed in 2017 or 2018.
The youth movement exacerbates the learning process for this defense under Knowles.
“You have to grow and be confident that you're one of 11 and that you do your job and you stay in your area and you keep your eyes,” Knowles said last Saturday. “I like to say, see a little to see a lot. If you start seeing too much from a defensive perspective you lose track of what you're actually supposed to be looking at, and that's the whole thing that offenses try to do, right? They try to move the eyes of the defenders and I thought (Iowa State) did a better job of that than we did at being disciplined. When I say we, that's not the players' fault. That's me and I need to find a way to get them prepared better.”
As first-year players, Peel and Bernard are not made available for interviews. So it can be difficult to tell where they feel they're at in grasping both the OSU defensive concepts and the speed of the college game.
Williams, the corner on the touchdown late in the first half, said there were too many communication issues in the secondary to be effective.
“We didn't have anybody on the same page,” he said. “We had a few guys playing a certain call and a few guys playing that call, so it was a miscommunication. At the end of the day, I have to make us right. Two wrongs can't make us right.”
Iowa State's Tarique Milton (left) heads for the end zone as OSU sophomore safety Thabo Mwaniki tries to bring him down on last week.
11 a.m. Saturday ESPNU, KFAQ am1170