Two things are certain for the OSU Cowboys this week: 1-They will be decided underdogs in their game at Kansas State, and 2-Because of the areas in need of shoring up, they are bound to show some improvement, win or lose.
I haven’t seen a point spread yet for Saturday’s game; but, with the Cowboys on a two-game losing streak, no longer in the Top 25 rankings, and playing on the road against the Wildcats, who are crouched atop the Big 12 standings and ranked No. 11 nationally in the AP poll, it seems reasonable to assume that the point spread will heavily favor the ’Cats.
Regardless of their record, the Wildcats under Coach Bill Snyder are always a tough opponent, especially so in Manhattan. This year, KSU is 6-1 with the lone defeat being a close 7-point loss to No. 4 Auburn. The six victories include a win over OU in Norman and a 23-0 shutout last week against Texas, the first shutout ever for a Charlie Strong-coached team. The Wildcats are also a national leader for fewest penalties per game, meaning opponents can expect little to no help from KSU errors in a game.
Clearly, the task for the Cowboys is a formidable one.
Not making the job any easier is that the Cowboys are riding a bit of a slump right now. As the youngest team among the major college conferences, the Cowboys are competing with considerable inexperience in the lineup and it shows. In addition, key injuries and a lack of depth at many positions have added to the challenge.
How did the Cowboys get to be so young? A key part of the answer may be the loss of so many players from the recruiting classes of 2010 and 2011, classes that now are the seniors and fourth-year juniors. Of the 54 signees from those two recruiting classes, only 19 remain. The losses have departed for various reasons or have not turned out to be as talented as expected. So far, 42 of the 48 signees in the 2012 and 2013 classes have been retained, a strong indication that this year is a one-time glitch, not a trend.
Particularly significant among the injuries have been the loss for multiple games of a starting safety and cornerback on defense and on offense the starting quarterback, two running backs, and a veteran lineman. Many of those called on as replacements have been freshmen.
One notable area for improvement is the offensive production. Fans accustomed to high point production have been disappointed in the Cowboys’ inability to generate touchdowns as, I’m quite confident, have been the coaches and players themselves. It’s hard for fans not to be a bit antsy when the norm in recent years has been 20 points or more—quite often double that—per game, but in the last two-plus games (10 quarters) only one touchdown has been scored on offense.
One area definitely in need of improvement Saturday if the Cowboys are to corral a win against the Wildcats is third down-play, both on offense and defense. For the season, the Cowboys have converted only 36 percent of their third-down opportunities. To some extent, that may be the result of too many third-and-long situations, that is third down and four or more yards needed. Those situations most often result from short gains on first down. Against West Virginia last week, the Cowboys managed to convert only twice in 15 attempts. On defense, the Cowboys have limited opponents to 37 percent conversion on third down, a solid effort. However, against West Virginia, OSU stopped the Mountaineers only nine times in 18 opportunities. Unfortunately, several of WSU’s successful conversions were third-and-long situations, including one of 19 yards and it was achieved on a run, not a pass play.
Special pressure for improvement is on quarterback Daxx Garman, who posted great numbers as a high school quarterback through his junior year. He had to sit out his senior year on an eligibility question, signed at Arizona but didn’t play, then transferred to OSU and didn’t play for a couple of years until handed the starting job six games ago when veteran J.W. Walsh was injured and is apparently out for the season. Though not a freshman, he is inexperienced and perhaps somewhat rusty from the layoff.
In an offensive that has clicked well with short and medium-length passes tossed by a quarterback who has released the ball quickly or run with it, Garman is finding it to be an adjustment because his strength seems to be with throwing long passes rather than the short or medium variety, and he is more a pocket passer than a run threat. Plus, he has the pressure of needing to succeed because essentially he has no backup in case of injury or a bad performance day since Coach Gundy is trying to redshirt freshman Mason Rudolph, who is envisioned as the future QB for the Cowboys. Using Rudolph now would toss aside his redshirt year.
So, the Cowboys have a challenge to face Saturday night; and, since they are facing the Wildcats, an old, time-worn cliché about the difficulty of facing this challenge might be appropriate: It will be like herding cats.