Posted: Saturday December 31, 2011 6:18PM ; Updated: Saturday December 31, 2011 6:18PM
Andy Staples

Fiesta Bowl preview: Best D will be good offense for Cowboys, Cardinal

Story Highlights

Oklahoma State's defense allows a lot of yards, but forces tons of turnovers

Stanford and Andrew Luck will benefit from having trio of healthy tight ends

Cowboys must keep the chains moving to give their defense the rest it needs

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Fiesta Bowl Preview: A Must-See QB Battle
Source: SI
Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples analyze the keys to the Oklahoma State-Stanford Fiesta Bowl clash.

No. 3 Oklahoma State (11-1) vs. No. 4 Stanford (11-1)
Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)


Had the conversation gone differently in April 2008, Oklahoma State and Stanford wouldn't be meeting in the Fiesta Bowl. Had the Big 12 and then-Pac-10 not been among the leagues blocking SEC commissioner Mike Slive's proposal for a four-team playoff, the Cowboys and Cardinal would instead be playing in semifinals against Alabama and LSU, respectively. (In unrelated news, the Big 12 and Pac-10 commissioners who helped block progress in '08 no longer work for either league.)

Instead, Oklahoma State and Stanford will play in the game that, earlier this year, became the poster child for all that is wrong with the bowl system and bestowed upon the world the following joke: "Q: How do you make it rain in the desert? A: Ask John Junker if he has his Fiesta Bowl credit card handy."

That's terribly unfair to the players and coaches, who deserve a chance to play for the national title. For everyone involved in protecting the sham of a system that determines college football's national champion, it's poetic justice. It's also quite fitting that these teams having to play in this game may wind up being the single greatest impetus toward a movement to scrap the current system and bring in a playoff.

Three and out

Justin Blackmon and the Oklahoma State offense can turn short plays into long gains.
Justin Blackmon and the Oklahoma State offense can turn short plays into long gains.

1. The Cowboys may give up a lot of yards, but they also force a lot of turnovers. Oklahoma State ranks No. 107 in the nation in total defense (445.7 yards a game) but No. 1 in the nation in turnovers forced (42). All those yards opposing offenses gain mean little when the Cowboys intercept a pass or force a fumble before their opponent can score. How does Oklahoma State force so many turnovers? Simple, defensive coordinator Bill Young said. Practice.

"Nobody in the country works harder in forcing turnovers than we do," Young said. "It has been a point of emphasis for the last three years. We double whistle all of our scrimmage plays against the scout team. At the first whistle, everybody stops on offense and the defense tries to get the ball to turn over, rip it out, strip it out. As coaches we sound like a bunch of idiots screaming 'rip, strip, turnovers' and all that. After practice each day, if we haven't created five turnovers against the scouts, we have to run a gasser for each one we didn't."

2. The Cardinal's tight end trio is mostly healthy. Zach Ertz, who injured his knee on the opening kickoff of the USC game, came back against Notre Dame, but he wasn't 100 percent. Against Oklahoma State, Stanford should have its full complement of three tight end sets utilizing Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo. That's a significant chunk of the Cardinal's offense. Defending the trio -- Ertz is 6-foot-6, Fleener is 6-6 and Toilolo is 6-8 -- is no easy feat. That makes quarterback Andrew Luck quite happy.

"What's great about having three tight ends on the field, there are only so many defensive looks you can give," Luck said. "You can sort of -- not dictate what's going to happen -- but sort of be prepared for how someone is going to line up to a three tight end set. And that makes it easier as a quarterback to see what type of play to get into."

3. For Oklahoma State, the best defense against Luck will be a good offense. One problem for no-huddle teams such as Oklahoma State is that when the offense fails, it fails quickly. That forces a tired defense back on the field, and the effect can snowball after a couple of three-and-outs. But if quarterback Brandon Weeden, tailback Joseph Randle and receivers Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper can keep the chains moving, Oklahoma State's defense will get the rest it needs to face Luck, Stepfan Taylor and the three-headed tight end monster.

Stanford's secondary struggled against USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and against Oregon's speedy skill-position players. Oklahoma State would be well served to dish out its usual array of short-range, high-percentage passes, because the Cowboys' speed could turn short throws into long gains.

Statistically speaking

Stanford has won time-of-possession in 21 of its past 25 games. That probably won't change Monday. Oklahoma State doesn't need to hog the ball. The Cowboys averaged 26 minutes, 58 seconds per game, and they only won time of possession in three of 12 games.

Final analysis

If Luck, who threw only nine interceptions all season, remains prudent with his passes and Stanford's backs and receivers can keep the Cowboys from stripping them, then the Cardinal should be able to keep pace with Oklahoma State's scoreboard-rattling offense.

Defensively, Stanford's line will need to get to Weeden quickly and without much assistance from additional rushers. Weeden handles blitzing defenders with an uncanny ability to check down. Blackmon and company can turn those checkdown dump-offs into big gains.

The pick

Oklahoma State 37, Stanford 31
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