STILLWATER, Okla. – While No. 21 Oklahoma State has been known for its explosive offense the last few seasons, the defense has altered that perception this year.
Coming off their second off week in the past month, which followed a thrilling 33-29 comeback victory over Kansas State on Oct. 5, the Cowboys (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) need their defense to step up again this Saturday, especially because their offense will be going up against the conference's second-best defense when TCU (3-3, 1-2) visits.
Leading the charge will be senior linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis, each of whom has already earned Big 12 defensive player of the week honors this season.
"Those guys have been really good leaders for us and are having good years," coach Mike Gundy said about the linebacker duo. "They're experienced. Lavey used to make a number of mistakes, and over the last couple of years, he's grown. He's played in a lot of different venues and, Lewis, too — they've been good for us."
A man not prone to hyperbole in nine years as head coach, Gundy offered high praise to his defensive unit, which ranks 19th in the nation in yards allowed per play (4.69).
"I feel like this is the best defense that we've had," Gundy said. "If we're fortunate enough to continue to stay healthy, I think they play well together, I think the mixture of the positions on that side of the ball allows for them to have success. We have weaknesses on our defense and we have our strengths, but when they play together, they've played fairly well to this point."
Having two elite-level linebackers on the field for virtually every play, lining up next to each other for four years, undoubtedly plays a huge role.
"Every year before this, we would look at each other and tell each other what to do (before each play), but this year, we haven't. We already know we're both supposed to do a stunt in a certain way," Lewis said about the uncanny chemistry he has developed with Lavey.
"It's just playing with each other for so long. That's what it's all about, just competing against each other and enjoying the camaraderie. If Caleb makes a play, I'm just as excited as if I made the play. That's what's fun about this year more than what we've ever had here. We put in so much work in the offseason and to see guys out there having success, there's no better feeling than to share that with your brother."
Being able to generate turnovers represents a big part of Oklahoma State defense's objective this season. In just that game against Kansas State, Lewis recorded an interception, forced a fumble that teammate Emmanuel Ogbah recovered, and then later recovered another fumble on the K-State 6.
Lavey also had an interception, so the two linebackers accounted for four total turnovers, all in the second half, which led to nine OSU points on the scoreboard in what turned out to be a four-point win.
"That's the key thing for our defense. We want to go out, force turnovers and give our offense the ball," Lewis said. "Whatever we can do — strip the ball, intercept the ball — to get the ball back in our offense's hands. That's just basically having fun flying to the ball. (Defensive Coordinator Glenn) Spencer preaches all the time that good things happen when you fly to the ball."
Spencer, who is in his first season as defensive coordinator but has coached the squad's linebackers since 2009, emphasizes that good positioning combined with quickness toward the ball usually leads to more takeaways.
"I don't think it's a secret. Any coach in America would tell you being where you're supposed to be is important," Spencer said. "If you're in a defense with more zone and people have their eyes on the quarterback, it's about knowing where the ball is going and breaking on it. It's fundamental football that gets you closer to those opportunities. If the ball comes out, then people are there to get it. A lot of people teach that, though. I think good players just seem to be around the football more often."
That's why it's no coincidence that Lavey and Lewis are always in the midst of the action.