After the Bulldogs opened the game with the 10-play, 80-yard TD drive, the silence in the stadium said it all: Here we go again. But when the defense came to the sideline, Gundy was surprised to see that there was no panic on the players' faces, only calm. "In years past we would have gone in the tank," says Gundy, who is in his fifth season. "But after they scored, no one flinched." Georgia, stifled by the zone blitzing and sound tackling of the Cowboys, would cross midfield only once more for the rest of the game.
That new defensive swagger starts with first-year coordinator Bill Young, 63, who turned a dreadful Kansas defense into a top 15 unit in 2007 and is regarded in college football circles as a brilliant teacher. Throughout Saturday's game Gundy watched in amazement as Young, a former Oklahoma State defensive end, called schemes and "at the same time," Gundy said, "turned around and told the defensive linemen on the sideline what the D-linemen on the field were doing wrong."
When Young's predecessor, Tim Beckman, became defensive coordinator under Gundy in 2007, he set the modest goal of turning a putrid defense into a top 50 unit. (The Cowboys ranked no higher than 93rd under Beckman, who left to become the coach at Toledo.) "We certainly want to be better than 50th in the country—we want to be the best defense in the Big 12," says Young, the coordinator at Miami last season. "The talent's here. There are guys here that I tried to recruit at Kansas who wouldn't give us the time of day."
One of those players is Perrish Cox, a senior from Waco, Texas, who limited Georgia's most dangerous weapon, wideout A.J. Green, to four catches for 52 yards and drew the type of cheers the Oklahoma State crowd usually reserves for its team's offensive stars. On the Bulldogs' first drive Cox swatted away a ball intended for Green in a back corner of the end zone. On the next drive the 6-foot Cox, who has a 36½-inch vertical leap, went high over the back of the 6'4" Green, reached past the wideout's right shoulder and batted the ball again. Cox also returned the second-half kickoff 73 yards, setting up the touchdown that put the Cowboys ahead 17--7.
"Their defense is underrated," says Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. "Their linebackers aren't as fast as the ones in our league, but they're bigger, more physical. Their corners are fast—Cox is a tremendous athlete. You hear people say the Big 12 is a quarterback conference, all offense. But Oklahoma held Florida to 24 points in the championship game last year. These guys can play defense, too."
A year ago the Cowboys ranked 42nd in the country in turnovers forced, with 25 in 13 games; on Saturday they got three turnovers while committing none. According to defensive tackle Derek Burton, Young was obsessed about creating turnovers in spring and fall drills. After practice he would litter lockers with orange pieces of paper, the number of takeaways the defense had forced that day written in black. He barked at his players to pick up every ball that hit the turf, even incomplete passes. Says Cox, "The only thing [Young] says in practice is 'Strip, strip, strip.' The guys on offense got ticked off about it. We got into it [with them] a few times."
As if scripted by Young, the pivotal play against Georgia came when free safety Lucien Antoine put a vicious hit on Bulldogs running back Carlton Thomas, forcing a fumble. Cornerback Terrance Anderson fell on the loose ball, setting up the late second-quarter field goal that would give the Cowboys the lead for good. "With their offense getting all the credit, the defense is playing like they're trying to prove people wrong," says Georgia's Joe Cox. "They have as much talent as anyone we play [in the SEC]. And they clearly now have the hunger, too."
For sure, one of the top dogs in the Big 12 resides 85 miles to the north of Norman. When the new AP Poll was released on Sept. 8, Oklahoma State was expected to be ranked ahead of Oklahoma for the first time since 1997. The Cowboys should be favored in each of their next six games leading up to the Oct. 31 showdown with No. 2 Texas in Stillwater—a game that, if it matches two unbeatens, would be the Big 12 game of the year. Pickens said recently that if the Cowboys received a BCS bid, "it would probably make me pee in my pants."
Good thing he can afford a new pair.
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