Four downs: Can the No. 9 Cowboys curb another Big 12 opponent's momentum? 

Jason Elmquist/Stillwater News Press Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders rolls out against the TCU defense during OSU’s recent home game at Boone Pickens Stadium. Sanders returns this week the site of possibly his worst game as a Cowboy – Lubbock, Texas, where he had five turnovers in a loss back in 2019.

A trend has emerged in the Big 12 Conference.

Football teams have grown into the strongest versions of themselves soon before encountering Oklahoma State.

West Virginia and TCU each claimed a notable conference victory one weekend before facing OSU, proving themselves to be more competitive than their records indicated. The Cowboys’ next opponent also follows this pattern. OSU will take on Texas Tech at 7 p.m. Saturday in Lubbock, and the Red Raiders are fresh off of a 41-38 win against Iowa State.

Similarly to the Horned Frogs, Texas Tech is reshaping its identity with an interim coach and a quarterback change. Sonny Cumbie has stepped in for Matt Wells, who was fired in late October, and redshirt freshman passer Donovan Smith made his starting debut in the victory against the Cyclones, swapping in for Henry Colombi.

The No. 9 Cowboys haven’t had any fluff games on their schedule – even Kansas is better than usual, nearly upsetting Oklahoma and going on to stun Texas – but this has worked in OSU’s favor. The unpredictability of Big 12 matchups prevents the Cowboys from underestimating anyone, and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles pointed out how opponents’ recent victories provide “visual evidence” of them playing their best football, giving OSU plenty of film to study.

Sticking to this positive approach, the Cowboys (9-1 overall, 6-1 Big 12) have squashed their rivals’ momentum, continuing to advance in national polls with a potential Big 12 Championship appearance on the horizon.

OSU dominated the Mountaineers 24-3 and routed the Horned Frogs 63-17. Next, it’s time to see if the Cowboys can do the same against the Red Raiders (6-4, 3-4). Here are four questions about factors that could influence the outcome in Lubbock.

First down: How will the Cowboys stand up against another promising quarterback?

TCU quarterback Chandler Morris put up gaudy numbers during an upset win against Baylor, passing for 461 yards in his first start.

Against the Cowboy defense, he had no chance of a repeat performance. OSU held Morris to only 125 yards through the air and no touchdowns. 

The Cowboys’ tenacious defensive line has a new challenge with Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith, who earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Week honors after defeating the Cyclones.

This wasn’t Smith’s first time on the field for the Red Raiders – he played against Kansas and OU – but it was his inaugural starting appearance. He completed 25 of his 32 pass attempts for 322 yards, including three touchdowns.

Despite those impressive stats, the Cowboys should be able to limit Smith’s effectiveness if they stick to their principles. OSU has prided itself on stingy defense up front, recording 37 sacks to lead the FBS alongside Marshall.

The Cowboys haven’t had much trouble shutting down an offense since facing Iowa State’s Brock Purdy, and they’ve grown since then. This is a chance for them to maintain the defensive stability that has carried them through the past several games.

Second down: Can the offensive line have its second straight game with solid run blocking?

OSU ran through the Horned Frogs with a season-high 447 rushing yards.

The Cowboys relied on an ensemble of running backs to get the job done, and they also benefited from necessary improvements on the offensive line.

“This was really the first game that we played at a high level run blocking, where we finished blocks,” coach Mike Gundy said. “In most of my years here, we were playing at a pretty high level up front, run blocking, by game four or five.”

The O-line might have waited later than usual to make this progress, but at least it happened, especially during a time when the group could have been rattled because of injuries.

Left guard Josh Sills was unable to play against TCU, so Tyrese Williams filled in for him. Then center Danny Godleveske was shaken up midway through the game, bringing in Joe Michalski, but the lineup changes didn’t seem to hinder the men in the trenches.

Although it’s unclear if Sills and Godlevske will be able to return against the Red Raiders, OSU’s depth at the line of scrimmage is a positive sign. Regardless of the starting lineup, it’s crucial for the Cowboys to continue to run block at this level if they want to jump to an early advantage against Texas Tech – and give the running backs more opportunities to make Barry Sanders proud.

Third down: Will Spencer Sanders continue to increase his efficiency?

Although the run game has significantly boosted OSU’s offense, Spencer Sanders’ progress as a passer has been equally important.

After some early-season highs and lows, redshirt junior quarterback Sanders is establishing himself as a poised leader. Since the Cowboys faced Baylor, his pass completion percentage has increased in every game, growing from 56.5 to 68.

Sanders has figured out how to be efficient without overdoing it, and Gundy complimented his decision-making.

“Quarterbacks have to learn that we don’t have to have a positive play every time we call a play,” Gundy said. “Sometimes, it’s OK to end up with second and 10 or throw it away, or sometimes, it’s even OK to take a sack, so he’s getting a better feel for that, in my opinion, as this year has progressed.”

Gundy said the Cowboys’ improvements in protecting Sanders have also contributed to his evolution. Sanders has always had talent, but it takes a cohesive offense for him to maximize his abilities.

With two games left in the regular season, it’s more important than ever for Sanders and the Cowboys to continue on this forward path. 

Fourth down: Will Sterling play in Lubbock?

To the surprise of many, Tre Sterling isn’t out for the season.

Sterling, a redshirt senior safety, played in two games this year before he exited the starting lineup with what was considered a season-ending injury. Gundy didn’t have all of the details of the procedure, but he said Sterling underwent hand surgery.

“He’s back at it,” Gundy said after the TCU game. “Tre had a pretty unusual recovery with the surgery he had, very unusual, and got cleared a week ago and can play with that little half-cast on.”

Although Sterling went through warmups in full uniform – which, for him, included the cast on his right hand/wrist – he didn’t enter the game against the Horned Frogs. This week, he and Sean Michael Flanagan are listed as the second-string safeties behind Jason Taylor II, who has filled in for Sterling since the injury.

Taylor’s ball-hawk mentality has resulted in several disruptive plays this season, so he will likely continue to have opportunities even with Sterling back in the lineup. If Taylor and Sterling end up splitting reps, expect an already-dominant defense to have more power against the Red Raiders.

Follow News Press sports reporter Hallie Hart on Twitter @halliehart for updates on Oklahoma State football.

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