After escaping three turbulent nonconference games with wins, the Oklahoma State football team is diving into Big 12 Conference play.
The Cowboys start with a home matchup against Kansas State at 6 p.m. Saturday.
OSU shares somewhat of a kinship with this Big 12 rival because of their authentic college-town environments and agricultural roots, and this season, a few comparisons extend to the football field.
Like the Cowboys, the Wildcats are rolling into conference play 3-0.
They rounded out their nonconference schedule with a 38-17 victory against Nevada during the past weekend, but an injury has complicated K-State’s path to an undefeated record. Starting quarterback Skylar Thompson hurt his right knee during the Wildcats’ second game, and it’s unclear when he will return.
After enduring more than their share of personnel shake-ups through three games, the Cowboys can relate to their northern neighbor. An unblemished nonconference record doesn’t usually look like a miracle, but for many fans, this three-game slate for OSU has been like a series of near-disastrous thriller films that leave them needing a few moments to just sit and breathe after watching.
It’s been entertaining. It’s been wildly unpredictable – if you bet on walk-on Cale Cabbiness to make the game-sealing catch against Boise State, then it’s time for you to take your career to Las Vegas. It’s been scary at times, but the Cowboys have managed to win despite missing multiple receivers sidelined with injuries and turning to true freshmen for first-string roles.
It’s time to keep moving through this rollercoaster of a season. Here are four key questions the Cowboys will need to address Saturday.
First down: Will OSU’s run game continue to progress?
Jaylen Warren added the missing piece to OSU’s offense.
The Cowboys’ momentum on the ground stagnated against Missouri State and Tulsa, but Warren set the run game in motion to defeat the Broncos. He treated the Smurf Turf as if it were a track, and he would have earned multiple gold medals.
Was the explosive run game a one-time luxury for the Cowboys, or will it become a consistent trend?
The answer doesn’t fall on Warren alone, or even on the entire group of running backs. Creating room for Warren starts with the offensive line.
Coach Mike Gundy said the O-line improved its run blocking during the Boise State game, and that progress will have to continue for the Cowboys to gain 200-plus rushing yards again.
If Gundy’s word doesn’t show the difference, then take a look at the stats through the first three games. OSU was limited to only 54 rushing yards against Missouri State and 140 against Tulsa.
In the Boise State game, Warren alone racked up 218 yards on the ground. Yes, that’s 24 more than the whole Cowboy offense had in the first two games combined.
Warren can move. So can quarterback Spencer Sanders, who stiff-armed a defender for one rushing touchdown against the Broncos. But K-State probably won’t make it easy for OSU to showcase its speed.
The Wildcats are holding opponents to an average of only 1.9 yards per carry, so the Cowboys have their work cut out for them.
Second down: Which young receivers could influence the outcome?
OSU can’t seem to shake its injury curse this season.
Injuries have afflicted the Cowboys in multiple position groups, but the wide receivers have shouldered the brunt of the difficulties. The list goes on and on.
Langston Anderson is out with a foot injury. Tay Martin, who had a starring role in the season opener, was then sidelined after roughing up an ankle. Freshman Bryson Green exited the lineup at Boise State with an injured hand, sending Cabbiness into the game to make his memorable catch.
It’s a problem unlike anything Gundy and offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn have experienced before, and it’s out of their control. In the face of these challenges, the Cowboys need young receivers to make a difference, and several have shown glimpses of their potential.
Redshirt freshman Rashod Owens had 34 yards on two receptions against the Broncos. Cabbiness ended the game with his 24-yard catch. Sophomore Brennan Presley, who is also active on special teams, has 125 receiving yards through three games.
For the Cowboys to establish an effective passing game, Sanders will need a solid connection with at least one of these guys. As OSU’s rushing game improved in Boise, the passing game waned – the Cowboys had only 82 yards through the air.
Although that was enough to scrape past Boise State, fewer than 100 passing yards likely won’t cut it in the Big 12. The Cowboys’ injury woes are unfortunately unavoidable, but it’s time to see how they will continue to work around these obstacles.
Third down: Can OSU control time of possession?
OSU prides itself on defense this season.
The Cowboy defenders radiate confidence, embracing their identity as a group that can secure victories. “The Entire Defense” was named the defensive MVP after the Boise State win.
But regardless of skill level and determination, fatigue can set in for any group if it’s spending too much time on the field. To keep the defense fresh, the Cowboys have to control time of possession against K-State.
In the first half last Saturday, Boise State had the ball for 5:42 more than the Cowboys did. As the Broncos continually forced three-and-outs, it was beginning to look a little worrisome for OSU’s defenders when they repeatedly returned to the game without much of a break.
Then everything flipped in the second half. The Cowboys controlled possession for 12:18 longer than Boise State did, and this wasn’t all because of the offense. OSU’s defense settled in and increased its third-down efficiency, reducing the Broncos’ time of possession. But for the defense to have the energy to do this, the offense needs to make sure it’s maximizing its time on the field.
Fourth down: Will special teams continue to change the game?
First, LD Brown returned a kickoff for a 98-yard touchdown against Tulsa.
Then Jason Taylor II saved the Cowboys with a field-goal block at Boise State.
Special teams have sometimes been OSU’s Achilles heel, but this year, they’re providing some necessary heroics. Along with those huge plays from Brown and Taylor, punter Tom Hutton has played a less obvious but steady role in the Cowboys’ victories. Gundy has noticed, pointing out Hutton’s ability to pin opponents behind their 10-yardline to open drives.
Gundy acknowledged that OSU has to get creative with its recipes for wins. With its decreased depth, the Cowboys have no choice. This means OSU needs to hold strong on special teams, one of the ways it can gain a sizable advantage in seesaw matchups.
“We’re going to be in fourth-quarter games from here on out,” Gundy said Monday. “We lost some pretty good firepower for the year on offense, so you’re trying to do the best you can to manage and work together as a team and rush the football and use the clock and keep the defense off the field and play good special teams.”
You read it from the coach himself: expect a close one against K-State. Gundy half-jokingly suggested reducing beer prices to keep fans in the stadium after halftime, but regardless of how much you’re paying for a game-day beverage, it might be worth staying just to see how the Cowboys’ next thriller pans out.
It’s Big 12 season, and it’s time to be ready for anything.
Hallie Hart is a sports reporter for The Stillwater News Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find her on Twitter @halliehart.