Though it was tempting to write off the Cowboys after early-season struggles, Oklahoma State has turned its season around and, this Saturday, will once again play for a Big 12 title in Bedlam.
It’s a narrative that the Sooners are very familiar with, and the game might be familiar as well. After all, the Cowboys are yet another offense-only Big 12 squad with formidable skill-position weapons and a defense that’s only slightly less bad than OU’s own. This one has all the makings of another shootout, but—like last year—can OU turn it into another blowout?
Here’s how OSU breaks down on film:
Just like last year, the two most important things to know about this Cowboys offense are 1) Mason Rudolph and 2) James Washington.
But unlike last season, the Cowboys running game isn’t a total liability this time around. Things were so dire after last year that OSU brought back Barry Sanders to try to resurrect its rushing attack. Alas, Barry J. Sanders just isn’t his father—fortunately for OSU, true freshman Justice Hill has stepped up instead. Along with senior Chris Carson, who’s averaging nearly 7 yards on 59 carries, the OSU backfield should be respected, if not feared.
But it’s Washington who remains the focal point of the offense. Washington doesn’t lead the team in catches, but everything else—from his nearly 20 yards per catch to his 9 touchdowns to his 1,159 receiving yards—is good for a team best.
The Cowboys often isolate Washington to one side of the field, bunching two or even three receivers opposite him and forcing defenses into uncomfortable choices. The strategy works because OSU has several talented receivers beyond Washington—speedy sophomore Jalen McClesky has 7 touchdowns of his own.
OSU shows a lot of formational flexibility, rarely giving defenses the same look in a series. “Cowboy back” Blake Jarwin (a “fullback” for us normal, non-mullet types) lines up everywhere in the backfield to give an extra pass blocker, a wider running lane and an occasional pass-catcher. Sometimes the Cowboys will line up tight, with two wide receivers just yards off the line.
For all its virtues, one way the OSU offense definitely lags OU’s is in the big play. There’s just no receiver who’s going to burn the OU secondary on a go route before catching a perfectly placed over-the-shoulder Rudolph pass, or a running back who’s going to pop off 50-yard carries. I mean sure, OSU is good for maybe two or three big plays a game. But the Sooners have demonstrated an ability to score from pretty much anywhere on the field, and the Cowboys haven’t nearly as consistently. That said, they’ll dink-and-dunk the crap out of any team and can certainly do so against OU and its velvety-soft cushions. And the Sooners just don’t have a corner who can play with Washington.
Combine that with a stingy turnover margin, and this OSU offense just isn’t going to beat itself like West Virginia’s did.
Oklahoma State had trouble with Texas Tech a couple of weeks ago, but not record-shattering, Sooners-level trouble, so we won’t hold that against them. The Cowboys played an odd front against Tech’s pass-only offense, but most of the time OSU rolls with four down linemen and will likely do so again on Saturday.
Ideally a safety would not be your leading tackler, but senior Jordan Sterns is an exceptional talent and the Cowboys have defended the run effectively of late even with Sterns leading the way. Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor is the Pokes’ sack leader with 5.5, while junior end Tralund Webber has 5 of his own. The OSU front seven has played well lately, though that probably has more to do with opponent than anything else. The Cowboys haven’t seen anything like Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in awhile.
OSU’s pass defense is pretty familiar—lots of 8-yard cushions, with corners trying to funnel receivers to the middle and linebackers used to seal off intermediate routes. It seems like OU should have its way with this unit. Anything from screens to quick slants to curl routes should be enough to shake it, along with an effective ground game. But OSU’s D does create a small margin of error in a passing game, forcing quarterbacks to find small windows and time everything perfectly. The Sooners should be able to do this, but a bad turnover or two could be all the Cowboys need, and that’s probably what they’re banking on.
The Cowboys definitely can tackle consistently and they swarm to the ball, so while I think their scheme often fails them, the unit is talented and primed to capitalize on mistakes.
I’m not as worried about this game as I probably should be. The Cowboys have a very good resume, caught Baylor before its implosion, and should only have one loss. And the OSU offense is more than a match for Oklahoma’s leftover D.
In the end, I think one thing I mentioned before—the big play—will define this game. Assuming the weather is okay, Oklahoma will be just a vintage Dede Westbrook catch or two, a Perine stiff-arm and a Mixon hurdle away from rolling over these Cowboys again. My biggest worry would be a few possessions of uninspired playcalling leading to three-and-outs leading to a quick lead for OSU. But if Lincoln Riley is seeing what I am, there is more than one way to attack the OSU defense and more than one Sooner who can be the hero on Saturday.
Give me the Sooners, and the Sugar Bowl, in this one.