The Oklahoma State defense will certainly face a much better opponent than Louisiana against Arizona, but the Cowboys have shown that they can contain the Wildcats. In its 2010 romp of UA in the Alamo Bowl, OSU had its best performance of the season, allowing a season low 10 points to an offense that entered the game averaging 29.8 points per game.
Despite surrendering 34 points the Ragin' Cajuns last weekend, the Cowboys allowed only 320 total yards.
The front seven is undoubtedly the question mark of the defense, as it only returns one full-time starter from a season ago. Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick split time at defensive end in 2010, but both are full-time starters this season.
Blatnick, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound senior, was the team's sack leader last year with 5.5 and Jones, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound senior, came in just behind him with 4.5 sacks of his own. Blatnick picked up right where he left off in 2010 with a sack in the opener against UL and will be the primary means of pressure for Oklahoma State on Nick Foles.
Defensive tackle is perhaps the team's most glaring weak spot at this point, as Nigel Nicholas and Christian Littlehead have yet to prove they can be defensive stalwarts in the middle.
Nicholas is a converted defensive end who utilizes the quickness to get into opponent's backfields. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound junior already has a sack this year, and in 2010 he was able to put up a pair of sacks in limited playing time to go along with 18 tackles.
At 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, Littlehead is used primarily as a space eater on the defensive line as evidenced by his zero tackles against Louisiana and only 10 career tackles. However, if he can occupy more than one Arizona offensive linemen on running plays, OSU will likely be pleased with his performance.
How well Littlehead and Nicholas are able to prevent UA's offensive line from getting to the Oklahoma State linebackers will likely have a huge part to play in the outcome of Thursday's game. After all, the Cowboys are attempting to replace stud linebacker Orie Lemon, who recorded 119 tackles in 2010, as well as another starter at outside linebacker.
The lone returning starter in the front seven is Shaun Lewis, who recorded 58 tackles and three interceptions in his first year on his way to Freshman All-American honors. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound sophomore gives the Cowboys a productive player against both the run and the pass, and will be looked to as an underclassman to lead the front seven.
If Caleb Levey is to post numbers similar to Lemon's, he better start racking up the tackles. The 6-foot-3, 211 pound redshirt freshman recorded just one tackle against Louisiana, and while replacing a player of Lemon's caliber is always a challenge, it's even more difficult with virtually no experience. Look for Arizona to test Levey on the ground early and to see if the youngster is up to the task of anchoring the defense.
Despite not playing football in high school, Blinn College transfer Alex Elkins finds himself as a starter for the Cowboys. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior turned an open tryout at Blinn into a scholarship at Oklahoma State, and showed with six tackles against Louisiana that even without much experience, he'll be an important piece of the OSU defense.
Joe Mitchell figures to see playing time as well at linebacker, as the 6-foot-3, 215-pound sophomore collected four stops a week ago and will be looking to make his contributions despite currently not having a starting role.
The secondary is a very deep, very experienced unit for the Cowboys, as it returns three starters and two players who have contributed in lesser ways in the past. At corner, Justin Gilbert is the lone non-returning starter, but registered 18 tackles as a true freshman.
At 6-foot, 205 pounds, Gilbert has the size to hang tough in the run game and as evidenced by his kick returning responsibilities, he also has the speed to keep up with receivers. As the lone unproven player in the secondary, Gilbert may have to prove early he's able to put the clamps on UA's receivers.
Opposite of Gilbert is 5-foot-8, 185-pound junior Brodrick Brown, who despite his small stature, led all returners with 77 tackles a season ago, including seven tackles in the Alamo Bowl. Brown also recorded a pair of interceptions and has proven against top level talent that he's a capable defender against the pass and the run.
The headliner of the secondary is Preseason All-Big-12 selection Markelle Martin, who Arizona fans surely remember for his 62-yard interception return for a touchdown in December's contest. In 2010, Martin was tied for the team lead in picks with three, and his 10 pass break ups were tops on the team.
In his third season starting for Oklahoma State, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound safety is poised for a big year judging by his nine tackles and three pass break ups in the opener. Martin will be involved on every play, whether on the ground or through the air, and is perhaps the OSU defender that most needs to be accounted for on each play.
Free safety Johnny Thomas also logged an interception in the team's Alamo Bowl victory, one of three he recorded a season ago. However, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior was ruled ineligible for the season on Tuesday night.
Thomas' absence gives Daytawion Lowe an opportunity to show case his skills, and the 6-foot, 195-pound redshirt-freshman made the most of it in his first game by recording six tackles and one pass break up.
While the Oklahoma State defense may not be the best that Arizona faces all season, it certainly will pose a much stiffer challenge then the one put up by Northern Arizona last Saturday. The Cowboys have plenty of athleticism to become an effective unit, and the confidence that they've performed well against UA before.
In what should be a high scoring affair, the OSU defense will be asked to keep the team in the contest and allow the opportunity to win.
Keys to the game:
1. No turnovers: Arizona can ill afford to give Oklahoma State extra possessions and good field position, and also is going to need to protect the football and keep up with the OSU offense. Four turnovers in the Alamo Bowl doomed U, so avoiding turnovers is priority one this time around.
2. Run between the tackles: With so much inexperience in the interior of the defense, UA should look to force the issue up the middle early on the ground in an effort to bring the safeties down and open up the middle of the field for the passing game.
3. Score on the first possession: Obviously Oklahoma State enters the game with all of the momentum from the Alamo Bowl win. That momentum could be leveled if the Wildcats come out and score early and show they're not suffering from a hangover from the December game.
4. Control the clock: What's the best way to stop the Oklahoma State offense from scoring? Keep it off the field. If Arizona can limit the Cowboys' possessions, it greatly increases its chances to win.
5. Forget the Alamo Bowl: The old adage "Remember the Alamo" need not apply to Arizona, which will have to shake off the dismal performance of 2010 in order to prevent Oklahoma State from repeating last year's domination. Arizona will need to display the confidence, character, and mental toughness of a team that has prepared well for Oklahoma State rather than as the same team that lost by 26 in San Antonio.