Off, not running
Unfortunately, instead of being off and running the OSU Cowboys are off in their running.
Through their first five games, the Cowboys are averaging only 3.9 yards per rushing attempt, the lowest average since an identical 3.9 in the 2005 season. Between the bookend seasons of 2005 and 2014, the Cowboys averaged more than five yards per carry except for two years in which the average was 4.4.
Chances are, if the Cowboys, now 4-1, are to continue winning this season, the running game will have to improve.
The yards per carry is but one bit of evidence that the Cowboys’ ground game is somewhat below what fans have come to see as par for their performance. Additional evidence is the lack of a 100-yard rushing game by any of the backs so far this season. This is the first season under Coach Mike Gundy that the Cowboys have not had a 100-yard game by a back this far into the season.
Long runs—gains of 20 yards or more—have been at a premium. Through the first five games, the Cowboys have had only five such runs, with four of them coming in the game against Missouri State. Thus, in the other four games, they have achieved only one such run; or, stated another way, in three games they have had no gains of 20 yards or more via the run.
The concern, then, is that teams can concentrate less on stopping OSU’s ground game and devote more personnel and focus to stopping OSU’s effective use of long passes where multiple gains of 20 yards or more are regular occurrences. Actually, another part of the concern has to be that the Cowboys’ short passing effectiveness is also somewhat in question at this point.
Since the Cowboys have not been as strong in rushing, it seems fair to wonder how they will fare after Saturday’s game against underdog Kansas because they will move into the heart of their schedule facing such teams as TCU, ranked 18th nationally in defense against the run; Kansas State, ranked fifth; and Baylor, ranked 14th.
From the view of a fan in the stands, whether that be in the stadium or watching on TV, it appears that a key to improvement in the rushing game is the offensive line. Let’s remember that this is a young unit. Three of the five starters are first-year starters. That means the line is inexperienced, and experience is integral to successful line play.
Aside from being short on experience, the line is working with a new coach. Usually, this means a new way, or, at least, an altered way of doing things, which, in itself, is a learning process.
All of these combined add up to a process of developing to the point that the rushing game regains its position as an equal partner with passing in OSU’s overall offensive effort and output. Fortunately, the first half of the season has provided a schedule conducive to development while still winning games. That should continue through Saturday’s battle against the Jayhawks.
But, after that, the friendly schedule ceases to be so friendly and becomes a proving ground. TCU, West Virginia, KSU, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma present, as the old saying goes, a rough row to hoe. Adding to the difficulty of the schedule is that five of the last seven games, beginning with Kansas, are on the road.
So far, the Cowboys, the youngest team in the nation among major colleges, have found a way to win despite a less-than-desired rushing performance. Those of us in the stands are hoping that the Cowboys continue to find ways to win and that part of doing so is discovering ways to bring the ground game up to the accustomed level.