No easy fix for Ok­la­homa State's ail­ing pass cov­er­age Cow­boys re­ly­ing on fresh­men and sopho­mores in the de­fen­sive back­field

Tulsa World - - Work&money - By Mark Cooper

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.”

MATT BARNARD/ Tulsa World

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

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