November 06, 2011
Oklahoma State 52, Kansas State 45.
We're much too far along in the season to be surprised by this kind of score, this kind of score being right in Oklahoma State's wheelhouse: The Cowboys yielded 507 yards Saturday night and actually improved in the national rankings, moving up from 111th in total defense to 110th. By now, you're either willing to accept that a turnover-heavy, bend-but-don't-break style can sustain a perfect season despite such ghastly numbers, or you're impatiently waiting for the other shoe to finally fall on these impostors.
Essentially, any debate over the 9-0 Cowboys' merit as a BCS contender comes down to this: Splitting hairs between what's actually a bad defensive performance, and what only looks like a bad defensive performance on the stat sheet because of their rapid-fire style of play.
Last week's 59-24 rout over Baylor was a classic of the latter genre, in which the Cowboys yielded an incredible 622 total yards but also forced five turnovers and led 49-3 after three quarters. So was the rally from 17 points down at Texas A&M in September, when the defense largely dominated the second half to put OSU on the national map. By contrast, last night's escape against Kansas State may have been the first this year that was undeniably bad.
The Wildcats left Stillwater with season highs in rushing yards, passing yards, total yards and first downs, and with more points than they'd managed against anyone except Kansas. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, K-State answered Oklahoma State scores with consecutive drives for (respectively) a go-ahead touchdown, a tying touchdown and three shots from the OSU five at a touchdown that would send the game to overtime or (with a two-point conversion) possibly win it. For those three plays, at least, the D held its ground.
With this team there's always more than meets the eye in the box score, and Saturday was no exception. The usual opportunism was there early, on a pair of first-half turnovers that set up the offense for easy touchdowns inside the Wildcat 5-yard line. The offense didn't help the cause by serving up a pick-six that Kansas State took back for a 24-14 lead in the second quarter. As always, production on both sides is mitigated to some extent by sheer volume — in this case, K-State got off a whopping 90 snaps, just about normal against an unit that's faced more plays than any other defense in the country.
But the caveats can't distort the fact that a team with legitimate BCS championship ambitions had to trade shots through the final bell with one of the meekest offenses in the conference — just one week after the same team was obliterated on its own field by Oklahoma. Even in the "survival" stage of the season, with only three more games standing between the Cowboys and a Jan. 9 date in New Orleans, the question is only gaining in urgency: Is a team that gives up 500 yards and 45 points to Kansas State really good enough to survive?
Opposite this offense? Maybe. Quarterback Brandon Weeden still hasn't found a secondary he can't reduce to a pile of ashes, and he's not going to find it over the next two weeks at Texas Tech or Iowa State. That leaves only Oklahoma, in Stillwater, in a game that — with a little help from Oregon against unbeaten Stanford, or perhaps Arkansas against unbeaten LSU — could still serve as a de facto semifinal for the BCS title game. For their part, the Cowboys don't need any help: If they get by the Sooners to finish 12-0, regardless of the score in that game or any other, their reservations for the French Quarter are booked. Whether that's possible with this defense, though, is still very much in the eye of the beholder.