Guerin: OSU’s race against time has more to do with defense than starting quarterback

It looks like Mike Gundy’s offense scoring over 30 points in any Big 12 game this season will be a major bonus, regardless of quarterback. That leaves the Cowboys’ potential riding on their defense.

By Published On: September 12, 2023

STILLWATER — Oklahoma State is racing time to manifest a successful football season. It just isn’t the race you think.

It doesn’t really matter when Mike Gundy names a starting quarterback. Alan Bowman, Garret Rangel and Gunnar Gundy all have strengths but none show the potential to elevate an offense with problems beyond the QB1’s identity. 

We can argue about the position all week and the rest of this season. It won’t change a fact Gundy announced at his Monday press conference. 

“When you can rely on defense being consistent throughout the season,” he said, “then offense becomes a bonus.”

It looks like Gundy’s offense scoring over 30 points in any Big 12 game this season will be a major bonus, regardless of quarterback.

That leaves the Cowboys’ potential riding on their defense. 

It wasn’t any different two years ago when Gundy had an All-Big 12 quarterback. Spencer Sanders made plays that season that Bowman, Rangel and Gunnar Gundy can’t make, but he also tossed seven interceptions in two games against Baylor and threw for less than 200 yards at Texas and West Virginia. 

OSU’s offensive issues that season extended beyond quarterback, same as they do now. The Cowboys overcame those issues, beating Texas and West Virginia and splitting with Baylor, because of defense. They went 12-2 because of defense. 

Sanders made the difference in the season-ending Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. But it took defense to get him there. 

Can Gundy rely on this defense like he did the 2021 version?

“I don’t know,” he answered Monday. “It’s too early. I’ll know a lot more in three or four weeks.”

It’s worth asking and comparing now because OSU just won a September road game that invoked ‘21

The Cowboys beat Arizona State Saturday night because their defense clamped down long enough for their offense to figure enough out. It was a blueprint borrowed from two Septembers ago at Boise State, the night Sanders went 6-of-13 for 82 yards and OSU won by burying Boise’s offense over the second half. 

That game informed us that Jim Knowles’ fourth year as OSU defensive coordinator with 10 of his 11 starters would be standard-setting. 

Gundy hired defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo last January. Nardo is in year one with all of his players, only three of whom started every game for 2022 coordinator Derek Mason. 

“What I said when (Nardo) first took over was it took us three years with Jim,” Gundy said. “I hope it doesn’t take three years with (Nardo). I don’t think it will, but it’s gonna take a little time.”

OSU won during Knowles’ first three years when Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard exploded on defenses and Sanders flashed his ability. That bought Knowles enough time to perfect his mix of scheme and personnel. Then the Cowboys won big.

Nardo does not have the luxury of Wallace, Hubbard or Sanders, so he can forget about the luxury of time. That isn’t fair but is a reality, same as comparing OSU’s ‘21 defense to this one. 

“That was ranked in the top two or three in the country at the end of the year,” Gundy noted. “If you can get relatively close to that, you’ll be in pretty good shape.”

“Relatively close” gets OSU a relatively successful season like 2022, when Mason’s defense could not compensate for the Cowboys’ offensive deficiencies as often as Knowles’ defense did the year before. The Pokes went 7-6 instead of 12-2 with Sanders still quarterback. 

We’ll see what we know after Gundy’s three-to-four-week timeline. Right now we must settle for the encouragement of OSU’s second-half shutout of Arizona State. 

“I believe the sky’s the limit,” Collin Oliver, one of the few Cowboys remaining from that ‘21 defense, told media Saturday night. “I really believe that. Our whole defense does.”

The more grounded Gundy figured it was a step in the right direction. He’ll need another one Saturday against South Alabama, a 10-game 2022 winner, and then several big ones over Big 12 play when the talent scale balances.

Wish him luck.

“It’s gonna take time. It’s a layered defense,” Gundy said. “We’re still learning.”

With this offense, OSU’s defenders must learn faster than they did under Knowles. 


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Guerin Emig is a columnist for the Sellout Crowd network. Read his work at and Reach out with feedback and/or ideas at [email protected] or (918) 629-6229. Follow him on Twitter at @GuerinEmig and Instagram at @guerin.emig. .

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