It's been a tale of two seasons for the Oklahoma State defense: Arizona and non-Arizona. The Cowboys allowed 139 yards in shutting out Savannah State, then shut down Louisiana in the third game of the season. The Ragin' Cajuns finished with 24 points, but didn't score until the second half, after they were already down 44-0.
Then, there was Arizona. The Wildcats put up 501 yards and 59 points, torching the Cowboys through the air with Arizona quarterback Matt Scott hitting on 28-of-41 throws (68 percent) for 320 yards.
The Cowboys do return a number of key performers from last year's unit, one that was much-maligned but held up better on more advanced statistics (the Cowboys were a top-20 defense nationally per S&P+). Bill Young has traditionally done well against the run out of his 4-3 grouping, but has at times had challenges defending the pass.
The Cowboys do have a nice defensive end rotation with Cooper Bassett (6-5 270), Ryan Robinson (6-4 250) and Nigel Nicholas, with Nicholas coming in on passing downs. Robinson leads the Cowboys in both tackles for loss (three) and sacks (1.5). But the biggest area for improvement is probably at defensive tackle, where Calvin Barnett (6-2 299) and James Castleman (6-2 296) have emerged as forces. The two have combined for 4.5 tackles for loss between them, and have helped to spearhead the Cowboy rushing defense.
The linebackers are experienced and talented. Alex Elkins (6-3 230) is the team's leading tackler with 16 stops, with middle linebacker Caleb Lavey (6-3 240) not far behind. And the playmaker of the group is Shaun Lewis (5-11 225), who is also adept in pass coverage.
The Cowboys' occasional struggles against the pass don't come from their top two cornerbacks. Brodrick Brown (5-8 185) is one of the Big 12's top cover corners, while Justin Gilbert (6-0 194) is among its most dynamic athletes. Oklahoma State gets nice run support out of its safeties, with Daytawion Lowe (5-11 205) and Shamiel Gary (6-0 210) combining to make 22 stops.
Punter Quinn Sharp makes sure that Cowboy opponents usually have to start back further than they want to, as he's one of the nation's best at his position.