One of the main reasons Oklahoma State improved from a 7-6 record last season to a 10-2 this year is takeaways.
The Cowboys, who face Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl at 7:30 p.m. Friday, have a motto for their defense: “taking it back,” meaning forcing turnovers.
Last season, OSU had just 14 takeaways and finished minus-8 in turnovers. This season, the Cowboys rank ninth in the country with 27 takeaways, enabling them to finish plus-13.
“It’s a lot better than last year,” defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “That probably helped us win a lot of games. We created a lot more turnovers and a lot more opportunities for our offense. I’m pleased with that as compared to last year.
“I realize for us to win this game, we’re going to need to have some of those. Let’s just face it: We have to create and steal some possessions. It’s all about possessions, and we have to get some possessions for our guys and hopefully create a short field here and there. And I think if we don’t, you know, it’s going to be a struggle.”
The takeaways helped the Cowboys outscore the opposition 114-40 in points off turnovers.
“That’s the thing that scares you because that’s what will turn a game around,” Rebels co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. “So we preach every single day (to) protect the football. That’s the No. 1 thing on our list. So hopefully we can do that, but they’re obviously good at taking it.”
Ole Miss hasn’t been special in the takeaway department — it’s turned the ball over the same number of times that it has taken it away (22) — but quarterback Chad Kelly has not thrown an interception in his last 105 passes.
Minding Ps and Qs
Both these teams know how the margin between winning and losing can be razor-thin.
OSU is 4-0 in games decided by one score this season, but Ole Miss learned this lesson the hard way.
The Rebels were one play from victory when they held a seven-point lead in overtime and Arkansas faced a fourth-and-25. The Razorbacks completed a 14-yard pass to Hunter Henry, who flung the football some 20 yards behind himself in a desperate attempt to keep the game alive. Teammate Alex Collins grabbed the ball on one hop and ran to a first down at the 11-yard line.
That led to an Arkansas touchdown before Ole Miss sacked Brandon Allen on a two-point conversion try — but a facemask penalty gave the Razorbacks another chance and they converted for a 53-52 win.
“Looking back on it, that’s really the deciding factor in our season,” Kelly said. “You look at it and we could be back in the SEC Championship Game, playing against Florida — and if we win against Florida, we’re probably in the (College Football Playoff).
“Going into this offseason, we have to understand how little the margin for error is. Fourth-and-25 — we’ve got to execute. It’s not a given. You have to mind your Ps and Qs all the time.”
One of the biggest stories leading into the Sugar Bowl is the absence of Ole Miss All-America defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who was suspended after being arrested for marijuana possession after a fall in an Atlanta hotel.
But OSU also is missing an important defensive lineman. Senior Jimmy Bean started 34 consecutive games before suffering a season-ending injury against Texas Tech in the eighth game of the season.
“He’s been around a lot,” fellow lineman Emmanuel Ogbah said. “He’s been telling the younger guys (that) they have to step up. He told me one thing that almost made me cry.
“He said he was out there watching us practice and he had to go in the locker room because he couldn’t take it, not being able to be out there with us. That was sad. I wish he was in a better position.”