College Football Overtime (cont.)
Last Friday night, I finally saw Moneyball. While hardly a baseball fan (as evidenced by going to the movies during the seventh game of the World Series), I could certainly relate to the story. I've long believed college football's most common statistical measure -- yardage gained and allowed -- is becoming increasingly outdated, and there may be no better example than Oklahoma State's defense.
During Oklahoma State's 59-24 win over formerly ranked Baylor on Saturday, the ABC broadcasters made a point of constantly referencing the Cowboys' 102nd-ranked total defense. After giving up another 622 yards Saturday, the unit dropped to 111th. Looking at those numbers, you would never know Oklahoma State led 49-3 at the start of the fourth quarter and wound up holding Robert Griffin III -- who came in with a 22-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- to one touchdown and two picks. Though he finished with 425 passing yards, Griffin had just 152 at halftime, by which point the Cowboys led 35-0.
"We played an awfully good game," said Cowboys defensive coordinator Bill Young. "We gave up a lot of yardage. We let them convert a little too much in middle of the field, but we were exceptional in the red zone."
Oklahoma State reminds me a lot of last year's Oregon team, and not because of the array of uniforms. The Cowboys and Ducks both had an electrifying offense that overshadowed an unsung and frankly misunderstood defense. In fact, Brandon Weeden and Co.'s quick-strike attack contributes to the Cowboys' unflattering defensive numbers. For one thing, the defense is constantly on the field, having played 660 snaps, including 105 on Saturday. By comparison, Alabama's defense has seen 458 plays. Oklahoma State's defense has essentially played two extra games.
Meanwhile, Young usually empties the bench by the fourth quarter, so the other team piles up meaningless yards and points against second- and third-stringers. "Against Tulsa [a 59-33 win] we were ready to start grabbing people out of the stands," Young said.
No one would confuse Oklahoma State's defense with Alabama's or LSU's, but the Cowboys have their share of playmakers -- defensive end Jamie Blatnick, linebacker Shaun Lewis, safety Daytawion Lowe and cornerback Brodrick Brown, among others -- who excel at one thing in particular: forcing turnovers. The Cowboys lead the nation in interceptions (17) and fumble recoveries (12).
"Every single time in practice, we don't blow the whistle until we've had every possibility to strip the ball out," said Young. "We always post the number of turnovers we created the day before. If they don't get five a day against the scout team, we run after practice. ... It doesn't happen very often."
For a better read on Oklahoma State's defense, you might want to try Bill Connelly's S&P rankings, which measure play-by-play efficiency while eliminating garbage-time possessions. It's the closest thing we have to Moneyball. As of last week, the Cowboys ranked ... seventh.
It's been an unusual year in the Sun Belt. Troy, champion or co-champion for five straight seasons, is 2-5. FIU, co-champion last season and popular preseason pick, beat Louisville and UCF early but is just 2-2 in league play. Arkansas State, coached by former Blind Side star Hugh Freeze (Michael Oher's high school coach), is alone in first at 4-0 (6-2 overall), followed by Louisiana-Lafayette at 5-1 (7-2 overall).
But sitting there in third, having rallied from an 0-4 start to win its past four and go 4-1 in conference play, is the biggest surprise of them all: Western Kentucky. Since moving up to the Sun Belt and FBS in 2009, the Hilltoppers have often been viewed as team No. 120 out of 120. After going 0-12 that first year, the school fired coach David Elson and replaced him with former Stanford assistant and WKU alum Willie Taggart. He went 2-10 last year and began this season with losses to Kentucky, Navy, Indiana State and Arkansas State.
But the tide turned with an Oct. 6 double-overtime win at Middle Tennessee State. Led by star running back Bobby Rainey, the nation's sixth-leading rusher (126.8 yards per game), the Hilltoppers beat then 6-1 ULL two weeks ago, and on Saturday pulled out another overtime win, 31-28 over Louisiana-Monroe, capping off a wild finish in which the teams combined for three touchdowns in the final 59 seconds of regulation.
"This was a big win for our program," said Taggart. "In the past, the end of this game might have been a situation where we folded, but that shows the growth and progress of our football team to go out and get the win."
Sun Belt teams generally need at least seven wins to get a bowl berth, which will be no small feat for WKU since its remaining schedule includes a body bag game at LSU. But the fact that a bowl berth is even a possibility seemed unfathomable just two years ago.
Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:
LSU at Alabama, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Remember when Les Miles won a national title with Nick Saban's players? Remember when he was on the hot seat a mere 12 months ago? Beat Saban in Bryant-Denny Stadium in a 1 vs. 2 game and he'll get his own shrine in Baton Rouge, right next to Mike the Tiger's.
South Carolina at Arkansas, Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET): If another pair of top 10 teams from the SEC meet but everyone's watching LSU-Alabama, does it still count? The Gamecocks need this one to stave off Georgia in the SEC East, but it won't be easy on the road against torrid Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson.
Kansas State at Oklahoma State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): Oklahoma rained on Bill Snyder's parade with a 58-17 rout in Manhattan. That does not bode well for the Wildcats as they travel to Stillwater, where the Cowboys have won their first four home games by scores of 61-34, 37-14, 70-28 and 59-24.
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