Mike Gundy thinks Oklahoma State practiced fourth-down defense more than any team in the nation this offseason. It showed Saturday against the Sun Devils.
TEMPE, Arizona — The way Bryan Nardo remembers the story, it didn’t take long for OSU head coach Mike Gundy to take his new defensive coordinator by surprise.
“I think it was maybe the first or third day of spring ball (practice),” Nardo said. “Gundy goes, ‘We’ve got fourth down today.’”
Just one problem.
“Coach I just got here,” Nardo said. “I haven’t installed my fourth-down stuff yet.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Gundy replied. “It’s about having the calls. It’s about situational awareness.”
Those who witnessed OSU’s 27-15 victory over Arizona State 27-15 on Saturday night at Mountain America Stadium must be aware of the Cowboy defense’s excellence in that situation.
The Cowboys shut out the Sun Devils in the second half and held them to 277 total yards. Fourth-down stops were a huge component.
After the Sun Devils took a 15-7 lead early in the second quarter, OSU’s defense mustered stops on the next eight ASU drives. It wasn’t all punts. The Cowboys had four fourth-down stops, and gave up just one conversion.
Perhaps the biggest one came in the third quarter with ASU facing a fourth-and-1 on the OSU 40-yard line.
Cam Skattebo, ASU’s 225-pound running back, got the ball with nowhere to go. Linebacker Collin Oliver and defensive tackle Justin Kirkland immediately wrangled him to the ground for no gain. The Cowboys used the good field position to drive 60 yards and take the lead on Gunnar Gundy’s 3-yard touchdown pass to De ‘Zhaun Stribling.
“Fourth downs, third downs, third-and-shorts…we’re going to make sure they don’t get it,” Oliver said. “I love those downs. That’s what we live for. That’s our identity, I feel like.”
The final fourth-down stop was an inconsequential last gasp with seconds left. But OSU’s other two were big factors.
In the second quarter, ASU drove to the Cowboy 46 before quarterback Jaden Rashada attempted to step up in the pocket on fourth-and-5. He stepped into 283-pound Anthony Goodlow’s grasp for one of three OSU sacks.
Then, with 7:11 left in the game, the Sun Devils chose to go for it on fourth-and-2 from their own 33. Rashada fired incomplete to Cam Skattebo on fourth-and-2. Garret Rangel’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Brennan Presley six plays later put OSU up 12 with 2:56 to play.
It makes sense that OSU’s defensive players enjoy the fourth-down challenge. Simulating those situations was a huge emphasis for the coaching staff this offseason.
“The coaches definitely focused on that during fall camp,” linebacker Nickolas Martin said. “Focusing on those short-yard situations. Fourth down. And it showed up in the game.”
Gundy has emphasized the importance of fourth downs and having situational awareness since spring practice. If an offense needs four yards, defensive backs better not allow an easy release five yards down the field.
“We’ve practiced it 20 times more than I’ve ever practiced it in my 19 years as a head coach,” Gundy said. “I feel like we’re better at it and I think it paid off for us tonight.”
Last year, OSU’s opponents converted 17-of-32 (53%) fourth downs. In comparison, OSU converted just five of its 16 chances in 2022 (31%). Through two games this year, OSU’s defense is holding opponents to 20%.
After OSU tackled poorly in the opener, Nardo said a week of contact-filled practices helped force ASU into fourth downs.
“It’s just like anything else,” Nardo said. “The kids are getting more reps at it. You look at a kid like Lyrik Rawls. No excuses, he needs to continue to improve. But putting your pads on somebody and feeling it for the first time, it lightens it up a little bit and gets the kids more confidence.”
Small sample size aside, OSU’s stingy fourth-down performance bodes well for the defense. OSU held opponents to 8-of-27 (30%) in 2021 when it won the Fiesta Bow following the 2021 season.
“We battened down the hatches and held the line (on fourth down),” Martin said. “They gave us a yard and we defended it.”