Four downs: Can No. 10 OSU stop an 'inspired' TCU football team?

Jason Elmquist/Stillwater News Press The Oklahoma State defense has done a good job of corralling quarterbacks this season, but can they manage against TCU freshman quarterback Chandler Morris, who combined for over 500 yards of total offense in his first start for the Horned Frogs?

As this football season progresses, the fanfare surrounding Oklahoma State keeps growing.

The Cowboys have gradually gained prominence in national conversations, returning to the top 10 in the AP poll and also advancing to No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. With the wizardry of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, OSU’s defense somehow continues to outdo itself, and the offense has pushed past the growing pains of early-season injuries to string together some solid outings.

In case fans need another reason to be happy, the Cowboys will honor a living legend Saturday. Yes, OSU will finally unveil the much-awaited Barry Sanders statue, and Sanders will join Thurman Thomas as a member of the Ring of Honor.

With OSU’s GOAT back in town, it’s bound to be a celebratory weekend, but will the outcome of the game contribute to the upbeat atmosphere? OSU faces TCU at 7 p.m. Saturday in Boone Pickens Stadium, and coach Mike Gundy said the Horned Frogs “played very inspired football” during their most recent win.

Although TCU has been dealing with the turmoil of a midseason coaching change after parting ways with Gary Patterson, interim coach Jerry Kill led the Horned Frogs to a gutsy 30-28 upset of then-No. 14 Baylor during the past weekend.

Meanwhile, OSU walloped West Virginia 24-3 in a tough road environment. The Cowboys (8-1 overall, 5-1 Big 12 Conference) have continued to prove their skills, and with three regular-season games left, it’s crunch time for them to secure a Big 12 Championship berth and impress the CFP committee.

The Horned Frogs (4-5, 2-4) should be beatable, but their recent win against the Bears reinforced the point that anything can happen in Big 12 football. Here are four questions the Cowboys will need to address to ensure they can defeat TCU. 

First down: How will the defense handle Chandler Morris?

Chandler Morris made his debut as the Horned Frogs’ starting quarterback during the past weekend, and it went well.

Morris, a redshirt freshman transfer from OU, stockpiled 461 passing yards against Baylor, going 29 for 41 with two touchdowns. He stepped in for Max Duggan, who has been dealing with a foot injury.

Although Morris isn’t guaranteed to hold onto the starting spot this week, it makes sense if he does, and the Cowboy defense has plenty of work ahead.

OSU is familiar with facing Duggan, a junior, but scouting Morris is more unpredictable considering there isn’t as much film to study. It’s likely that Cowboys have thoroughly dissected footage from the TCU-Baylor game to learn about Morris’ tendencies, but he’s still a bit of a wild card since they can’t watch him through multiple matchups.

Of course, OSU’s defense has been unstoppable lately. The Cowboys sacked West Virginia’s quarterbacks eight times and allowed the Mountaineers to convert on only two of 14 third downs. To stand up against Morris, they will probably need this full-throttle, in-your-face defensive approach again.

Second down: How can the offense create significant separation from the Horned Frogs?

OSU has played tight games against TCU in recent years, and they haven’t always been pretty.

Last season, the Horned Frogs toppled the Cowboys 29-22 in Fort Worth. OSU also recorded losses to TCU in 2017 and 2018 before claiming a 34-27 home victory in 2019.

The Cowboys haven’t soundly defeated TCU since 2016, when they silenced the Frogs after one early touchdown to win 31-6. Gundy has been talking about fourth-quarter games all season long, but if the Cowboys could channel the 2016 version of their team and fend off TCU early, then they could claim their third straight blowout win this season.

That’s easier said than done. With help from guys who have returned from injuries, the Cowboys have ramped up their offense lately. But in the past, as Gundy pointed out, OSU had a difficult time moving the ball against TCU.

In their 2018 loss, the Cowboys managed only 99 rushing yards. In 2017, they had 101 compared to the Horned Frogs’ 238. To pull away from TCU early, OSU will need to rely on Jaylen Warren and Co. to make sure the run game doesn’t stall as it has in past years.

Third down: Will the Cowboys avoid penalties?

Two weekends ago, OSU played its cleanest game of the season against Kansas.

The Cowboys had only one penalty for 15 yards, a pass interference call on safety Tanner McCalister. That game was sandwiched between two in which OSU had seven penalties. Seven didn’t make a difference as the Cowboys cruised past the Mountaineers, but that same number affected them when they lost to Iowa State.

“We hurt ourselves at Iowa State because we started too many drives in long yardage,” Gundy said. “Or ended up in long yardage, based on penalties. We talked about it, and we work hard, and we’re getting a little better at it.”

The Horned Frogs have had their share of miscues, too. TCU somehow defeated Baylor despite a whopping 13 penalties for 111 yards. Although the Horned Frogs squeezed out a victory that time, the Cowboys could hold a significant advantage this weekend if they compete with the same level of composure they had against the Jayhawks.

Fourth down: Will special teams continue to play a major role?

Special teams gave the Cowboys a boost during their victory at West Virginia.

Late in the third quarter, Brennan Presley downed Tom Hutton’s 33-yard punt at WVU’s 3-yardline, giving the Mountaineers a long field they couldn’t overcome. When WVU was forced to punt, Presley made a fair catch at the Mountaineers’ 45-yardline, setting up a short field for a drive that ended with Warren’s 13-yard touchdown rush.

The Cowboys had the special teams momentum on its side, and the most significant moment happened when Korie Black recovered a muffed punt at WVU’s 26-yardline, leading to a Spencer Sanders touchdown pass to Tay Martin.

OSU’s defense gets the much-deserved glory this season, but special teams are playing a more understated yet significant role in the Cowboys’ success. As long as the Cowboys don’t revert to the field-goal mishaps that held them back at Iowa State, special teams could provide an extra spark against the Horned Frogs.

Untimed down: OSU plans to #BlackoutBPS

If you’re an OSU fan planning to go to the game this weekend, don’t wear orange.

The Cowboys have planned a blackout in Boone Pickens Stadium, so attendees are expected to wear black. OSU is spreading the word as much as possible, using #BlackoutBPS on social media and sharing the promotional video on the JumboTron at Gallagher-Iba Arena this week.

If the plan works and everyone in Boone Pickens Stadium wears black, a uniformly-dressed crowd would only add to the electric fan environment of the first 7 p.m. kick of the season.

Hallie Hart is a sports reporter for The Stillwater News Press. She can be contacted at hhart@stwnewspress.com.

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