A note on the OSU defense: this isn’t 1994

Written by Kyle Porter
Photo Attribution: USATSI

Photo Attribution: USATSI

Earlier this week John Hoover wrote a semi-scathing column in the Tulsa World on the Oklahoma State defense under Mike Gundy. He called OSU’s defense “mediocre” and said “count on two things every year in the Big 12 Conference: The Cowboys’ offense is going to be very good and the Cowboys’ defense is going to be very bad.”

Now I don’t disagree with parts of that — OSU has had pretty bad defenses in the past, even the recent past.

But his premise for how you judge a defense is a little silly.

He cited total defense (total yards given up), passing defense, and rushing defense as three of the prime indicators for whether or not a defense should be considered “good.”

As I said in the headline my problem with this is that we live in the year 2013, not 1994.

Hoover also said that 2009’s version was the best of the bunch since 2002. You know what happened in 2009 that he failed to mention? OSU’s offense played slow in 2009, of course the defense was going to look better — they were rarely on the field.

For the sake of comparison:

2012 defense: 1034 plays
2011 defense: 1089 plays
2010 defense: 1069 plays
2009 defense: 919 plays

120+ plays in a season doesn’t seem like a lot but when the median in college football is around 900, I mean, we’re talking over 10% of your season, another game and a half worth of plays. That seems like it should matter when you’re trying to determine how good a team is by how many total yards they give up.

We digress though — and that 2009 defense actually was pretty good, but not because it was ranked better in total yards given up than in other seasons (I’ll show you this in a minute).

Using yards allowed and points allowed on their own to determine how good a defense is in 2013 is just plain silly. Especially when we have the data to look at yards per play and points per possession and things like where your offense left the ball for your defense to take over and garbage possessions and on and on and on.

It’s like saying because Dustin Johnson hits his drives farther than anybody else, he should be the best golfer in the world.

Judging a team based on total yards or total points completely takes pace of play out of the equation so you can’t fairly compare a team like OSU’s (who plays hyper-fast and puts its D on the field so much) and a team like LSU’s (pretty much the opposite).

First, just to debunk the total yards given up thing. Here are OSU’s numbers in yards per play the last six years (national rank in parentheses):

Yards per play

2007: 5.9 (101)
2008: 5.6 (94)
2009: 4.7 (16)
2010: 5.0 (28)
2011: 5.5 (59)
2012: 5.3 (42)

So you can see the 2007 and 2008 teams were terrible but the last four have actually been pretty decent. Not great, not elite, but definitely not “very bad.” Also, guess when Bill Young got to town….

Now, let’s look at Defensive FEI. That’s just an acronym to you, I know, so I’ll try to explain.

DFEI on Football Outsiders is defined as this: the opponent-adjusted efficiency of the given team’s defense.[1. FEI (and thus Defensive FEI) is a college football rating system created by Brian Fremeau based on measuring the success rate of a college football team scoring and preventing opponent scores during the non-garbage possessions of a game. FEI rewards playing well against good teams, win or lose, and punishes losing to poor teams more harshly than it rewards defeating poor teams. It is drive-based, not play-by-play based, and it is specifically engineered to measure the college game. You can read more about all the factors that go into it here.]

It takes into account things like:

• Actual drive success of its opponents against expected drive success based on field position.
• Percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in at least one first down or touchdown.
• Yards earned by the opponent offense divided by the total number of yards available based on starting field position.
• Percentage of each opponent offense’s drives that average at least 10 yards per play.
• Defensive Strength of Schedule

It’s essential premise though, is did you stop people from scoring?[1. Last time I checked, this was the point of a defense.]

This is OSU’s national rank the last few years (not Big 12, national):


2007: 79
2008: 84
2009: 21
2010: 23
2011: 3
2012: 30

Bad in 2007 and 2008 (as we thought) but then pretty freaking great in 2009-2012. Like, top 30 great. And that 2011 defense was only bettered by LSU and Alabama. Only bettered by LSU and Ala-freaking-bama.

This is not a perfect indication of how good a defense is, but it is certainly better than looking at a total yards column, sorting by “descending,” and rolling with that. Way better.

About 2011 Hoover says turnovers that season simply hid a decade of ugly truth: Oklahoma State’s defense stinks. 

That’s simply not true.

  • OSU-Bill

    So, I really empathize with Gundy’s comments about a little more aggression on defense. It was simply agonizing watching the 4th quarter (hell, the other 3 as well) in the OU game as Landry marched down the field simply by throwing to receivers in the cushion (and first down markers) play after play after play. However, this post and others like it make a lot of sense–in the Big 12 it’s just too difficult to cover the field for the whole game, every (conference) game. As such, designing the defense around efficiency in preventing scoring (so-called bend, don’t break) makes sense. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. As the talent and depth of talent increases on defense, perhaps a shift to more aggression is warranted. In the past, the starters just couldn’t play aggressive the whole game, but perhaps now the second string is as talented as the starters were 4 years ago.

  • Mike

    You can come up with all the new statistics you want, justify it with the number of plays per game and say times have changed, but the bottom line is this: Time and time again our defense has failed to make a stop in crucial, game changing situations and as a result, OSU has lost a number of games that were within reach and very likely lost out on the only chance to play for a national championship that they will ever have.

    • Dreaming Man

      Was it 2010 or 2011 that we held Baylor and RG3 to zero points when they had 1st and goal? That includes 2 downs from like the 2 yard line.

  • Nate


    What do your eyes tell you? The defense sucks and has sucked for a long time. Pull out all the BS stats you want. The reality is that OSU has been BAD on the defensive side of the ball.

    There is a reason the defense is on the field so much and it’s not soley because the offense is playing fast.

    • Kyle Porter

      No, it is. The defense has been really good the last four years. Elite in 2011, above average in 2012.

      • Nate

        Trying so hard to not call you a complete dumbass…

        You’re better/smarter than this.

        But you are dead wrong.

      • Nate

        Still waiting for you to answer this though…

        Throw out all the stats. What have you seen on the field the last few years? JUST based on what you have seen… Can you honestly look yourself in the mirror and say we’ve had an “above average” defense? For the sake of your credibility, I hope the answer is no.

      • Ryan

        You’re being sarcastic i hope. You can’t be serious….

  • newbdogg

    Honestly this is most telling.
    2012 – Points Against 28.2 / Ranking 64th

    I wish I could find stats on third down conversions allowed. That’s how we lost against Texas and OU last year.

    • Kyle Porter

      OSU ranked 32nd in 3rd down conversions — just ahead of Georgia and Notre Dame.

      • newbdogg

        We lost to Texas on a 4th and 17 play if I remember correctly now. That set them up to score. You can’t possibly think that OSU’s defense was good Kyle. Excel may say so, but everyone’s eyes say otherwise. Firing Young was the best thing to happen to us in a while. He simply could not cope with all the spread offenses.

  • Joe blow

    You cannot sugarcoat OSU’s defense most of the last decade. You mention pace of the game as being the reason for so many plays I say if you are paying attention it’s because they rarely make the opposing offense go 3 and out. Gundy finally got tired of seeing the opposing offense get a first down on 3rd and almost any yardage. Many of the few defensive stops last year was the result of the opposing offense simply missing the wide open receiver. Throw whatever stats you want out there but nearly every person in attendance will tell you that defense SUCKED! Even Gundy thought so. You don’t fire coaches of elite or even very good defenses

  • TeaTown Cowboy

    John Hoover is a doofus!

    • Mike

      Maybe, but he is dead right about this one. Our defense has not been good in a very long time.

      • TeaTown Cowboy

        I agree but our prolific offense has to take some of the blame for this. Stats show that our defense has been on the field enough to equate to an extra game, some of that is on the defense for conservative play calling.

        Hope we see a lot of bumping by our cornerbacks esp on third (and fourth down gambles) and longs.

  • OrangeEvenSteven

    As Pat Jones would say, you have to use the “eyeball test”. If our defense was that good, they wouldn’t have made me drink so much last year. The boys have got some skills, to be sure, but the schemes cost us two or more games last year. You can cherry pick stats all you want, but the results speak for themselves. With that said, I am cautiously optimistic about this squad. They will still give up some big plays, but at least we won’t have to watch our opponents offenses nickle and dime us to the endzone…….I hope.

  • Matt

    Thought you were smarter than this Kyle. But for you say our defense last year was good and elite in 2011 makes absolutely no sense. Ball doesn’t lie and the ball has been in our end zone a lot over the past three seasons. Luckily we have had one of the best offenses in the country over that time that has hid a lot of the problems.

    Kyle, Not sure why you are so dead set on defending and insisting that our defense has been good or even “elite”, but you are probably one of very few that feel that way.

    • Kyle Porter

      The fact that our offense is “one of the best in the country” is exactly why our defense gives up a lot of points.

      Go look up Oregon’s defensive stats.

      • Matt

        You’re fighting a losing battle. I don’t care about oregon’s defense or their offense. “Number of plays”, “pace of play” and all that other nonsense is just that. Defense will always be look at and judged the same way; can you stop opposing offenses? And OSU hasn’t don’t a good job of that the past few years. If they did then Bill Young wouldn’t have been fired and we wouldn’t have gone 8-5 last year. Having a good offense shouldn’t be an excuse for having an average or below average defense.

        • Kyle Porter

          I cannot help you. Sorry.

      • Mike

        That’s just completely stupid. And what do Oregon’s stats have to do with anything, no one is claiming they have a good defense either.

    • Kyle Porter

      Also, Hoover’s the one cherry-picking stats. Not me.

      • Mike

        You aren’t cherry picking stats, You are inventing them. And we cannot help you, you continue to make excuses for a bad defense. It doesn’t matter how good your offense is, you still have to be able to stop somebody at some point and we have not been able to do that.

  • Nicholas

    Manny Diaz on 1/6/2011: ” I’m just interested in holding the opponent we’re playing to one less point than Texas scores.”

  • beaux_with_an_x

    Blah… Blah… blah.. shblah. shbah. shlbalaha….. ahdlfj.
    I love this article as a person who enjoys statistics. But the conclusion that you draw that OSU’s defense has not been terrible is simple not true. It ain’t true! Good defense isn’t like good offense where statistic are so important. Defense is about getting off the field when you desperately need it. About making plays. We have done that one year – 2011. 2011 was amazing. I don’t care how many yards they gave up, how many plays they were on the field, that defense was amazing. They shut down Baylor in the redzone. They took the ball away from Oklahoma and Texas. They gave us a great redzone stand against KState.
    But 2012, above average? I don’t care what your stats say. The defense was awful. Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma, they were so sad to watch. Just sad. Yes, the defense performed “above average” when the game is under control against WV or TTU. But its just pure homerism to say that it was an “above average” defense. (Well maybe above average in the Big 12…).
    Ok, now much props are due, because your analysis was so much better than just looking at total yards or raw passing statistic. Context is very important!

  • Jeremy Hall

    It makes sense to me. All the blah analysis guys will talk about how a team is 10th in a conference in pick a defensive stat of yesteryear then show the difference being 10-30 yards per game over/under the top teams.
    Every good 8 – 5 team is a play or two away from being 10 – 3. In our case, does the RB have the ball before arms go up for a TD, and a missed tackle on the Belldozer,
    Then are we still emphasizing this? Does Bill Young still have a job?
    I agree with Gundy about giving a cushion equal to the yardage needed for a 1st down. But there are some team/players who cant get that done. Supposed good players, Ash and Texas vs. justKansas
    I hope this year is another fun ride. Ill be in Stilly with friends and family starting at Joe’s and hitting a few tailgates on the way to the stadium. Win or lose, more tailgates and back towards Joe’s!
    Go Pokes