Four downs: Can OSU stop the Longhorns as they attempt to bounce back? 

Jason Elmquist/Stillwater News Press Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has spent the past few weeks talking about how he wants Dominic Richardson, pictured, to get more carries to take some of the load from starting running back Jaylen Warren. Will that happen this week against Texas?

While the Oklahoma State football team rested during a bye week, the University of Texas squandered a 21-point lead in the Red River Showdown.

Their weekends were hardly similar, but, it’s time to see how the Cowboys and Longhorns fare against each other. OSU takes on Texas at 11 a.m. Saturday in Austin, and the Cowboys’ first road matchup against a conference opponent could be their toughest test yet.

OK, so Texas might not be “back.” (Even the website IsTexasBackYet.com clearly proclaims “Nay” with only 40 percent of its meter full.) But after falling 55-48 to OU in a suspenseful game that epitomized a historic rivalry, the Longhorns have to be hungry for a chance to redeem themselves against another talented team.

Texas is still clinging to a top-25 spot, checking in at No. 25 in the AP poll, which means the No. 12 Cowboys are facing a ranked opponent for the third game in a row.

OSU (5-0 overall, 2-0 Big 12 Conference) is on an uphill climb through its schedule, and though the competition continues to get tougher, the Cowboys have proven their abilities to weather challenges. Around mid-October, coach Mike Gundy always says he has a sense of his team’s identity, and this year is no different. With a seasoned defense as their cornerstone, the Cowboys are progressing on offense as well.

“We just have to put a little bit more together each week,” Gundy said. “And I’m not trying to present that we’re playing where I want us to play offensively, but we know how to fix it and make it a little bit better each week.”

After a much-needed break for reenergizing and recuperating, the Cowboys have a new opportunity to work on these goals.

OSU is back after a bye weekend. Texas (4-2, 1-1) is looking for a comeback. Here are four questions the Cowboys should answer as they strive to keep the Longhorns away from their undefeated record this weekend.

First down: How much healthier are the Cowboys after a bye week?

Since the beginning of the season, injury updates have been a major storyline for OSU.

It seems like whenever one position group is finally healthy, then another loses depth. It’s been an unavoidable problem for the Cowboys, but the bye weekend might have arrived at just the right time.

Will anyone be able to reenter the lineup after the break? Unfortunately, Gundy doesn’t have psychic powers to help him answer this question – he said he’s “out of the prediction business” – but he has mentioned a few guys who are eager to return.

Brock Martin, a redshirt senior edge rusher who dislocated his left elbow, is one of them. In jest, Gundy said Martin tried to sign his own parental release form so he could come back as soon as possible.

Gundy also included fellow edge rusher Tyren Irby in this conversation, as well as running back Dezmon Jackson. When Gundy spoke during the bye week, he had optimism about their return timetables.

“There’s guys that are right on the verge,” Gundy said. “And if we can get them up and moving around a little bit this week, then maybe next week we can get them into some team reps and try to get a few plays out of them at Texas.”

It’s time to see if the bye week allowed this to happen. The Texas game can also show us how active Cowboys such as Jaylen Warren were able to benefit from some time to recharge. Gundy said Warren doesn’t rest, but for his sake, hopefully he took a little break after putting his body through constant exertion this season.

Everyone can use some time off – especially when you’ve carried the ball 115 times for 512 yards and six touchdowns.

Second down: How will the offensive line continue to develop?

After early struggles, the offensive line is headed in a positive direction.

At the start of the season, the Cowboys were shuffling guys along the line, making up for the absence of an injured Hunter Woodard. Since then, they have solidified a starting lineup, providing the stability they needed for improvement.

Cole Birmingham is at left tackle, Josh Sills provides veteran presence at left guard, Danny Godlevske anchors the group at center, a healthy Woodard is at right guard and Jake Springfield is at right tackle.

“Knock on wood, we’ve settled into five, and they’re starting to work together and they’re coming around a little bit,” Gundy said. “They’re not the finished product, but they’re getting better.”

Although this is reassuring for the Cowboys, the next question is, what is the O-line’s ceiling? When will the finished product be ready, and how good is it?

Gundy has seen clear indications of progress. Instead of always making cuts in the backfield, OSU’s running backs have had an increased number of opportunities to advance to the line of scrimmage first, Gundy said.

That’s a result of a strengthened O-line, but he also pointed out that the Longhorns’ defensive line is even more active than Baylor’s. To defeat Texas, the Cowboys in the trenches will have to keep working toward this “finished product.”

Third down: Will Dominic Richardson’s involvement increase?

Sophomore rusher Dominic Richardson has had a quiet season so far, but his role could continue to grow.

Gundy said Richardson has improved each week and will be expected to take responsibility for a number of the Cowboys’ carries going forward.

“If we rush the ball 40 times in the next game, I sure would like to get him at least 10 carries,” Gundy said.

It’s a reasonable goal. Richardson’s stats increased against Baylor as he recorded 33 yards on eight attempts, both season highs. Even with Warren’s crowd-wowing touchdown rushes and Jackson’s potential return, the Cowboys need Richardson to keep boosting those numbers.

We know it can happen. Last season in Waco, Richardson racked up 169 yards and three touchdowns on 23 attempts. Although that’s more than Gundy expects from a young running back on a regular basis, it’s proof that Richardson can be a key contributor to this team. Warren deserves all the praise he gets, but this doesn’t mean we can overlook Richardson, either.

Fourth down: Will Alex Hale return from the “driving range”?

Mike Gundy said he isn’t a golfer.

That hasn’t stopped him from using plenty of golf analogies in reference to Alex Hale, OSU’s redshirt junior placekicker, and they make sense.

After missing a couple of field-goal attempts against K-State, Hale took some time off against Baylor, sending Tanner Brown onto the field for PATs and field goals. Gundy said Hale needed to work on a “technique issue” and compared it to a golf swing, saying he wanted to give Hale some time on the metaphorical “driving range.”

After two weeks of practice, how is Hale’s swing – er, his kicking form?

We might find the answer if he returns against the Longhorns. We don’t always acknowledge the pressure that weighs on Division I kickers, but it’s there, especially if the outcome of a game comes down to a field goal.

If Hale takes on that pressure again, it probably means he has worked out the issue. If he isn’t back, Brown proved himself as a worthy selection for the placekicking job until Hale returns.

With an opponent like Texas, the Cowboys will have to depend on every piece of their lineup, from defense to offense to special teams. Gundy is confident in the Cowboys’ mid-October identity, and when they face the Longhorns, it’s time for them to keep living up to it.

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

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