STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) Jordan Sterns' interception in the end zone on the final play, clinching Oklahoma State's 43-37 victory over Kansas State, marked the second straight contest the Cowboys' secondary came up with a crucial turnover with the game on the line, and highlighted the unit's strong play overall this season.
While the passing defense for No. 17 Oklahoma State (7-2, 5-1 Big 12, No. 18 CFP) ranks fourth in the Big 12 and 80th overall in the nation (averaging 241 yards against), the squad's ability to bend but not break, particularly late in close games, has been important to its success.
''They've gotten turnovers at key times, and when their backs were against the wall, they've played pretty well in those possessions,'' coach Mike Gundy said of his secondary. ''We need more consistency throughout the middle part of the game, on normal down and distances - 65 percent of the game is played under normal circumstances, so obviously, that's the majority. We need to play better in those situations. I think we've given up more big plays over the top than I would have wanted this year. If you eliminate some of those and play in the intermediate part of the field, we've been OK.''
Sterns' interception on Saturday was OSU's 11th of the season, leading the Big 12 and tied for 22nd in the nation. Overall, the Cowboys have recorded 20 turnovers, most in the Big 12 and ninth in the country. They have forced at least one turnover in every game and have come up with 10 in the last four outings.
A week earlier, in a 37-20 win over then-No. 10 West Virginia, Oklahoma State recorded two second-half interceptions, including a crucial pick by linebacker Kevin Henry with 4:18 remaining that sealed the triumph. Together with a fumble recovery in the second quarter, the Cowboys totaled three turnovers in that game, with long returns giving the offense the ball inside the 10-yard line each time, and Oklahoma State scored 17 points off of them - the final margin of victory.
''We practice it, and the more you practice something, the better you're going to be at it,'' linebacker Chad Whitener said of the emphasis on generating turnovers. ''We work on it, we harp on it, we have goals for what we want to do turnover-wise.''
The secondary is led by Sterns, a senior safety who shares the team lead with cornerback Ramon Richards with three interceptions on the year and who has five in his career. Sterns also tops the squad with 60 tackles, and his average of 7.5 per game ranks sixth in the Big 12, while his career total of 284 sits fourth among active defensive backs from Power Five conferences.
The unit will have its hands full Saturday, when the Cowboys host the high-powered aerial attack of Patrick Mahomes and Texas Tech (4-5, 2-4). Mahomes leads the nation with 3,886 passing yards this season, over 600 more than second-place Luke Falk of Washington State.
''They'll be tested this weekend, that's for sure,'' Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. ''Obviously, the amount of times they're going to throw the ball will be the most of anybody we've seen this year. Between coverage when (Mahomes) scrambles and breaks the pocket, to yards after catch, all those factors, and then, if we have a chance to pick it, we've got to go up and get it. We got to steal a few possessions from these guys, some way, somehow.''
Gundy also cited pressure from the defensive line as a key to covering Mahomes and Texas Tech's explosive offense.
''In playing these guys, you have to be sound in three-man, four-man and five-man pressure, in my opinion, and you have to be balanced in how you attack their offense,'' Gundy said. ''We have to be consistent in our pass rush. And we also have to understand that it may seem like your biological clock is going off as a pass-rusher, but it may not be over, with his ability to move around and extend plays. I think that's as important as any part in defending their offense with him at quarterback.''
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