Jim Knowles’ Thriving Defense Against Big 12 ‘Madness’ Places Oklahoma State Firmly In Playoff Race


Almost everything about Stillwater, Oklahoma is straightforward. Small university town. The secluded stretch of State Highway 55 that stretches east into the hamlet 50,000 from I-35 might as well be a sign of what lies ahead.

“I have a cigar bar and a sushi restaurant. That’s about it,” Oklahoma State Defensive Coordinator Jim Knowles said, describing his perfect night out.

The lack of distractions is probably a good thing this week of the Big 12 Championship Game. If the Cowboys haven’t carved out a piece of national consciousness yet, well, that matches the simplicity of it all.

The city and the team are easy to forget.

Oklahoma is the legendary national program 77 miles south. But this week, OU is in turmoil without a coach following Oklahoma State’s 37-33 victory last Saturday. It was the Cowboys who qualified for the Big 12 title game against No.9 Baylor.

Winning and No.5 Oklahoma State doesn’t automatically make college football playoffs, but it’s safe to say the program will be near the peak of Coach Mike Gundy’s 18 seasons with a legitimate chance to play for the national championship. .

Before the campaign began, few expected bright lights to shine on a program led by a generational defense. This is the biggest surprise that came from the state of Oklahoma in search of a CFP place.

You shouldn’t have to be told that they don’t normally play defensively in the Big 12.

The statement is beyond a stereotype. The league has made a name for itself on the scorecard. The problem was, opponents often did the same against Big 12 defenses. Ten times since 2011, the Big 12 have produced one of the best six offensives. Only four times in a full season since that year has a Big 12 defense finished in the top 20.

Knowles, a former Cornell coach who trained at Ivy, became Duke’s defensive coordinator four years ago to test himself.

“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” Knowles told CBS Sports. “I really thought, ‘Well, [it’s] the Big 12. It is a particular form of madness. OK, let me see how I can handle it. ‘”

The Philadelphia native, 56, has held up well to the point of finding himself in demand. New Florida coach Billy Napier is reportedly interested in his services.

Knowles’ defense in Oklahoma State is good at Georgia level. You probably haven’t heard. The Cowboys are nationally No. 1 in sacks, loss tackles and third baseman conversions. They are fifth in defense (16.4 points) and third in total defense behind only Georgia and Wisconsin.

No one saw him coming to a place where 16 of the program’s 19 consensus All-Americans were offensive players. This list includes one Heisman Trophy winner (Barry Sanders) and three others who finished in the top 10 Heisman votes (Terry Miller, Thurman Thomas, Justin Blackmon).

“For me, as a coach entering my 18th year, it’s been a 360 for me about how I approach game day and the decisions I make during the game,” said Gundy, who was Sanders’ quarterback in that magical 1988 season. “Just let them play and [to think] Sometimes it’s good to kick a punt and play the position on the court. “

Knowles has meticulously assembled a veteran unit where each starter is in their fourth season – at least. Linebacker Devin Harper and cornerback Christian Holmes are in their sixth, while linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez is in their fifth.

They were part of the group that suffocated Oklahoma in Bedlam. Oklahoma State has played in the big brother’s shadow for decades. It all melted away in the blink of an eye when the Cowboys – having already clinched that spot for the Championship game – only beat the top for the third time in Gundy’s tenure. The state of Oklahoma is now a different heartbeat from something bigger, the CFP.

The OU’s narrow victory could not have been achieved without it being prevented from scoring an offensive touchdown in the second half. Oklahoma State shutout Texas Tech for the first time since 1997. Its eight sacks against West Virginia tied a Power Five high this season. The Cowboys kept their opponents 184.3 points below their scoring average.

Knowles is proud to do so without five or even four star rookies.

Unit 2020 was a tease, leading the Big 12 with the opponent’s lowest conversion rate to third place. OSU went 8-3.

“I could feel the tide was changing,” Knowles said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to convince them since I’ve been here, that we could win games in defense. We did that last year. I thought we had a chance to be really good. But we’ve reached like being awesome, and it’s like rarefied air. ”

Credit struggle. Gundy enjoys sports after wrestling until halfway through high school. He wears the insignia of honor of the fight, a cauliflower ear. It’s still impossible not to see this Cowboys wrestling promo of 2017. During his roughly decade dedicated to the sport, Gundy understood that wrestling skills translate into football. Both are physical sports to bring the opponent to the ground.

Rodriguez and defensive end Brock Martin are each former state wrestling champions. Rodriguez is a semi-finalist of the Butkus Award for the country’s best linebacker. Martin leads the defensive line with 34 tackles.

“Whenever we hear from guys who have wrestling experience, we’re very interested in recruiting them,” Gundy said. “Very few people know about wrestling because they don’t pay attention to it. It’s never on TV. It’s not a premium sport.”

Gundy is known to hire immediately. Former offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich (2013-18) was from Shippensburg State Division II and spent six seasons with Oklahoma State. He is now at Penn State. There was a relationship between the two when Gundy took an interest in Knowles after Duke in 2017 placed third in the ACC scoring defense and returned four picks six.

Knowles’ 4-2-5 pattern is perhaps the most common in the game. It emphasizes the ability to run and tackle in space rather than hitting the big blow. Kind of like wrestling.

“Mike recognized that we were able to do it [at Duke] without the high-profile rookies, ”Knowles said. ” He called me. I flew with a laptop. He picked me up, put me in a room with all the staff – attack and defense. I went into town, four hours nonstop. I closed my laptop, left, and never saw anything. Then he called me and offered me the job. “

Knowles became a local legend in his 33rd year of training. He spent a year on Wall Street barely out of Cornell.

“Then I found myself scanning the fences – I would probably be stopped today – watching high school practices,” he said. “The smell of grass. I grew up in downtown North Philly. There was no grass. When I first started playing football I didn’t even know where it was. the park. When I got to the park, there was that smell of grass. “

He was addicted, making stops at his alma mater (Cornell), Western Michigan, Ole Miss and Duke. His players are comfortable enough with him to call him a “wicked genius” or a “comic book character”. They may have gone too far with the nickname “Goob”, short for “Goober”.

“They won’t call me that opposite,” Knowles said.

Stillwater has become that simple place for a guy with simple tastes. How many bald, cigar-smokers and vegans marathoners are there?

“I’m healthy and taking care of myself, but I’m really not,” Knowles said. “I’m a coach. When you put it that way, it makes me think, ‘What the hell am I doing?'”

Ruining a Big 12 stereotype, for one thing. Maybe also advance his team in the college football qualifiers. It would be a great thing.


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