STILLWATER — Collin Oliver has a simple message for his defensive teammates when he lines up at rush end.
“Two point five,” he’ll say.
The Oklahoma State defensive standout has said it so often during his career, whether in his first two seasons as a defensive end or this season as a linebacker, that the rest of the Cowboys know exactly what he means.
“When he gets on the line,” Cowboy safety Kendal Daniels said, “that’s how long we’ve got to cover somebody.”
Because that’s how long it takes Oliver to get to the quarterback: 2.5 seconds.
Seemed like even less on Saturday.
OSU made several important defensive adjustments against Kansas, but none was bigger than making Oliver a pass rusher. It was a move spurred by the Jayhawks’ unexpected tendency to throw the ball on early downs, something OSU hadn’t seen them do much in previous games, but the adjustment was a success because of Oliver’s skill, speed and ferocity. He became a one-man wrecking crew, a problem for which the Jayhawks had no answer.
On the game’s two biggest defensive moments, a pair of fourth-quarter fourth downs, Oliver made the play. First, a strip sack, then a pass breakup.
“He’s more of a force when he’s close to the line,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said.
“He’s very good at what he does when he’s attacking.”
A review of the game confirmed that: of the 24 snaps he played in the second half, Oliver started 15 lined up at defensive end. Another play, he lined up initially at linebacker and moved up to the line right before the snap.
So, 16 of his 24 snaps, two-thirds, were played as a rush end.
And the Kansas possession that came after the Jayhawks’ final touchdown started to show the benefits of the Oliver adjustment. After bouncing between left end and linebacker on the drive’s first six plays, he lined up at left end on a second-and-9 from OSU’s 17-yard line. Linebacker Xavier Benson also moved up to join OSU’s three down linemen on the right side.
OSU showed blitz, then brought it with a sixth defender sprinting to the line at the snap.
Kansas quarterback Jason Bean dropped back, and even though he didn’t look hurried, maybe he let the ball go a second earlier than he should’ve because Daniels saw that Bean was eyeing his man the entire time. Daniels stepped in front of the receiver and intercepted the ball.
On Kansas’ next possession, Oliver again moved around and affected the Jayhawks.
First play: he lined up at linebacker and made the tackle after a 1-yard gain on a screen to Devin Neal.
Second play: Oliver started at linebacker, moved to right end before the snap and ended up picking up Neal out of the backfield in pass coverage.
Third play: Oliver lined up at right end, and again, the Cowboys showed blitz with six players at the line of scrimmage. But Oliver and defensive end DeSean Brown actually peeled back into coverage. When Bean tried to throw a short pass, Brown got a hand on the ball and Dylan Smith intercepted the deflected pass.
Then on the next two possessions came Oliver’s two biggest plays of the game, both on fourth down.
On a fourth-and-5 from the OSU 40, Oliver re-entered the game after taking a teammate’s helmet to the quad and sitting out four plays. He lined up at left end, and at the snap, he looked to move early but because he lined up a bit off of the line of scrimmage, no neutral-zone-infraction penalty was called.
Oliver blew past a blocker, got to Bean and stripped the ball from him. Kansas recovered but failed to get a first down.
On the fourth down on the next possession, Oliver lined up at right end. Kansas had 4th-and-1, so OSU loaded up the box, putting nine defenders near the line of scrimmage. But instead of running, Bean tried to pass, flaring a short pass toward a tight end.
Oliver got a hand on the ball and batted it away.
“It feels good to rush the passer; that’s obviously what I came to OSU for,” Oliver said, then added he is enjoying the move to linebacker, a switch that is good for the Cowboys in their new 3-3-5 defense and good for Oliver who would be undersized as a rush end in the NFL.
“I try to make the most of my opportunities on the line. That’s always a fun time when I get to get on the line.”
Fun for Oliver.
Not so much for opponents.
Cowboy defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo credits Oliver with being able to handle the challenge of going back and forth between linebacker and rush end, essentially changing positions on the fly.
“He’s very good at it,” Nardo said. “He’s natural, so we’re very blessed to have him.”
But Nardo said Oliver making that move in the middle of the game doesn’t happen without the rest of the defense being able to adjust. There’s a domino effect when a peg makes a major move like that.
“How does that affect Nick Martin? How does that slow him down? Or how does it slow down Kendal Daniels?” Nardo said. “That was a lot of the conversations over the headset was, ‘Who can we send? How can we activate things? And how can we cover down?’ Because it looks really good drawn on the board, but what if they do a formation? What if they motion? What if they line up in unbalanced?”
The Cowboys adjusted masterfully, shutting down a Jayhawk offense that had scored five touchdowns, all on long pass plays, and allowed no points in the final 26 minutes of the game. All sorts of defenders had to perform well for that to happen.
But Oliver playing so much rush end changed the game.
“It just gives us confidence,” Daniels said.
The Cowboys know, after all, Oliver can change a game faster than it took you to read this sentence.