Defense Got Better, More Experience

STILLWATER - It was a day to get better as Oklahoma State had Missouri State severely overmatched and it showed early as the Cowboys took command in the contest. OK, the goal was to play a lot of players and build up depth. Head coach Mike Gundy wasn't totally happy as he felt some of the younger Cowboys were sloppy with mistakes and penalties.

One accomplishment was to get another big-play threat identified at wide receiver and Bo Bowling took care of that with his fleet-footed slalom effort on a 66-yard touchdown pass from Zac Robinson. Personally, I was watching the defense and looking for improvement there.

The Oklahoma State defense played well in the opener in Seattle, but we've discovered since that Wazzu isn't all that. Last week the defense did a good job in the first half but went bend-but-don't-break with soft coverages (three and four) after the head coach gave instructions to do so. Some reporter didn't believe it or at least wrote that he didn't but I'd love to show him the video for proof. All that didn't matter as Saturday the defense had a chore it could dominate.

Oklahoma State won 57-13, but in the end the Missouri State Bears of the new Valley and out of the Football Championship Subdivision had 196 total yards, and more concerning 176 yards rushing. The secondary obviously did its job and while there were no sacks there was plenty of pass rush. That gets me back to 176 yards rushing. Not good, not good at all.

I decided to do a little research as defensive coordinator Tim Beckman played 28 players on defense. The defense was missing Jeray Chatham at defensive tackle as he sat the game out to get a foot injury healed. That is a big minus.

I went back and counted up the series that at least some of the first-teamers played. The total were 29 plays allowing 67 yards for an average of 2.3 yards a play. That left 37 plays where it was second-team defenders including a pair of freshmen safeties in Johnny Thomas and Victor Johnson. In those 37 plays Missouri State gained 129 yards for an average of 3.5 yards per play.

I felt better after looking at that and realizing that all those young players like Thomas, Johnson, Markelle Martin, Richetti Jones, Jared Glover, and more will only get better with the experience from Saturday.

Meanwhile, there were also some veterans getting comfortable. T.J. Bell has been known more as Tatum Bell's little brother but the hard working T.J. is now starting in the Cowboys' nickle and dime packages after the injury last week to Lucien Antonie.

"I felt like I played good," said Bell making his first start this season after the season-ending knee injury to Antoine last week. "Jamie Thomas always told me that it's not as good as you think and it is not as bad as you think, so I'll wait to see my grade sheet to see, but I think I played pretty good."

Bell is in a garden spot in the defense and it showed as he had two unassisted tackles including a tackle for a loss.

"A lot of times the safety has force and if it comes outside then we have to take care of that and if it is pass we have eyes on the quarterback, so 90 percent of the time we'll be able to break on the ball," explained Bell.

Antoine is a popular player to all including Bell and it was difficult to deal with.

"That was a tough blow and I really felt for him and I still do," said Bell sincerely. "We keep him encouraged and involve him in everything we do. That increases my playing time but I had to be ready no matter what happened."

Bell is now starting and playing a lot of snaps and his biggest fan isn't here to see him play. Tony Bell, a big affable man, is known to many OSU fans and he is a favorite guest at tailgates, but Bell isn't tailgating, he's driving in the desert of Iraq, driving trucks.

"I was sad to see him go over there, but that was a decision he made," said Bell of his dad. "I just go out there and play hard and I think about him every game and go out and try to play hard for him so my momma can call him up and tell him I made a play. I know he is over there wishing he could be over here but he will be back for the senior game (OU) and for my graduation."

While Bell has that to think about there were 10 of the 28 players playing on defense Saturday that live in Houston or the Texas Gulf Coast area, and with Hurricane Ike crashing into their towns and neighborhoods. Star linebacker James Thomas is from Galveston.

"Luckily my family got out of there," said Thomas. "I've been getting pictures from a bunch of people and Galveston looks like it is under water. It was tough to do but we focused on playing the game and now it is time to find out what is going on."

Thomas moved to the star position in fall camp and has flourished.

"The star position is like a roll down safety so it really wasn't that hard to learn," said Thomas.

Thomas, despite the distraction of a hurricane bearing down on his home, played well.

"It felt good, like you said, it was getting better and we're coming together as a real defense," said Thomas who had five tackles, four unassisted. "We are really getting better all the way around on defense."

T.J. Bell and James Thomas both made me feel good about the defense and yes, the numbers helped a lot. A lot better teams are on the schedule and giving up 176 yards rushing can't be a habit. Maybe because of Saturday and the experience young players received, it won't.

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