When looking at Oklahoma State's improved defensive play in recent weeks, two names jump to the forefront because of how their impact has elevated the play of the entire defense – Calvin Barnett and James Castleman.
The duo on the interior of the Cowboys' defensive line has been wrecking Big 12 offensive lines the past several weeks and has forced Iowa State's Jared Barnett, TCU's Trevone Boykin, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Texas Tech's Seth Doege to run for their lives instead of sitting comfortably back in the pocket like so many past quarterbacks have done against the Pokes.
And the consistent, effective play of Barnett and Castleman will be even more important this week against Landry Jones and the rival Sooners in Norman.
The Cowboy defense rattled Jones early and often in last season's 44-10 blowout in Stillwater, where Jones finished just 27-for-50 passing with no touchdowns and two interceptions, as well as two lost fumbles.
For No. 21 OSU to be able to win in Norman for the first time since 2001, the Cowboys have to effect the Sooners' all-time passing leader in the backfield, much like Kansas State and Notre Dame did in Oklahoma's only losses this season.
Jones had a masterful performance in OU's 50-49 last-minute victory against West Virginia on Saturday, throwing for an OU record 554 yards and six touchdowns.
"(Jones) presents a huge challenge," OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young said. "He'll be a top pick at quarterback in the NFL draft, and he has a great group of players surrounding him … It's going to be a task."
With OSU's struggles in the defensive secondary this season, it is up to the defensive line to generate consistent pressure to throw Jones off his game.
And fortunately for OSU, that pressure has been showing up for the Cowboys thanks to Barnett and Castleman.
OSU has steadily climbed the NCAA's defensive charts this season and rank 24th nationally in run defense, effectively turning its past several opponents into one dimensional passing attacks. And those attacks have been met with ferocious pass rushing off the edges and steady pressure up the gut.
"Defensively, I feel like this is the best defense we've had since I've been the head coach here and I've thought that from the start of the season," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "We started out slow. I'm not sure why."
Gundy pointed to the improved interior of the line as a major reason why in the preseason and the second half of the season it has been easy to see what he was excited about. And OSU is playing its best defense of the year heading to Norman.
Case in point, on Saturday OSU's line harassed Texas Tech's Doege into two interceptions, one of which came from Barnett, and three turnovers overall. OSU also sacked Doege three times and hurried him on seemingly every play. Overall, OSU held Tech – the nation's No. 10 offense entering the game – 123 yards under its average.
OSU also hassled WVU's Smith into 18 incomplete passes and forced two turnovers in a lopsided 55-34 victory.
The increased turnover production is largely a byproduct of the pressure from Barnett and Castleman and those are two things Young said are keys if OSU hopes to win its second consecutive Bedlam matchup.
"We have to get turnovers and put tremendous pressure on the quarterback," Young said. "If we don't do those two things, we don't have a chance."