STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- Entering the season, an experienced defense was supposed to be Oklahoma State's strength.
The plan was for the unit to buy time for an offense led by a freshman quarterback.
It's taken longer than coach Mike Gundy and defensive coordinator Bill Young wanted, but the defense seems to be rounding into form as Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) heads into arguably its biggest challenge of the season - a trip to the Little Apple to face No. 3 Kansas State (8-0, 5-0) and its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Collin Klein on Saturday.
In starting the season 2-2, the Cowboys surrendered 59 points to Arizona and 41 to Texas, losing both games. Since then, for the first time in its Big 12 history, Oklahoma State has held three straight league opponents under 20 points in wins over Kansas (20-14), Iowa State (31-10) and TCU (36-14).
"We've gotten more pressure on the quarterback from the edges over the last couple of weeks and that helps," Gundy said. "We've had more hurries. Our secondary has increased its ability to play the football while the ball is in the air over the last two or three weeks. We still have a ways to go . but we're much better now than we were a month ago."
Young and his players credit several factors for the Cowboys' defensive resurgence - better attention to detail, improved tackling, allowing fewer big plays and forcing more turnovers.
"Arizona, we flat out played terrible," defensive end Cooper Bassett said. "Against Texas, our defense played really well for three quarters and in the fourth quarter, for some reason, we kind of imploded. We didn't make the plays. We weren't fundamentally sound. Because of that, we lost the games. The biggest thing for us the past few weeks is we were able to be fundamentally sound and we were able put a full game together."
Added cornerback Justin Gilbert: "It's knowing your job, carrying out your assignments and not trying to do more than what you're supposed to do and trusting in your teammates and believing they'll be in the position that they're supposed to be in."
Much of Oklahoma State's early defensive struggles could be traced to a lack of turnovers. After leading the Bowl Subdivision last season with 44 takeaways, the Cowboys managed only four in their first five games before forcing two against Iowa State and three against Texas Christian.
Against TCU, the turnovers proved key as Oklahoma State held the Horned Frogs without a point on their final 11 possessions after TCU took a 14-0 lead.
Young said the Cowboys want to force a minimum of three turnovers in a game and said his unit's outing against TCU was "a little bit better" than it had been previously, but "obviously, we've got a lot of room to improve. We're not there yet."
Klein and Kansas State pose a unique challenge to any defense. The multifaceted quarterback has moved into Heisman Trophy contention thanks to his ability to run or throw the football. He's tied for the Big 12 lead in touchdowns scored with 12. He has two triple-digit rushing efforts this season and ranks fifth in the league in rushing, but also leads the Big 12 in pass efficiency and hasn't thrown an interception in 106 pass attempts.
Gundy said Klein has improved his passing this season, making him more dangerous.
"It looks like to me he's worked really hard in the offseason on his accuracy on his downfield throws," Gundy said. "They give him the time and his accuracy is considerably better, in my opinion, than it would have been a year ago."
Klein and the Wildcats ran wild at Oklahoma State last year, nearly pulling off the upset before then-No. 3-ranked Cowboys held on for a 52-45 win. Both teams scored two touchdowns in the final 5:16 and the Wildcats were on the verge of scoring again as time expired. Not long after the game, the most powerful earthquake ever in Oklahoma - magnitude 5.6 - was felt in the Stillwater area.
The Cowboys know what Klein can do but believe he can be limited somewhat if they can force Kansas State into turnovers and give Oklahoma State's offense short fields.
"You've just got to swarm to the ball, when he decides to pull the ball down and run, and then make sure everybody is in the right gap and sticking to their assignments," strong safety Shamiel Gary said. "In the pass game, all we have to do as a secondary is lock down on the receivers and then swarm to the ball."
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