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2017 Preview

Oklahoma State Seeks to Push Through the Glass Ceiling

Expectations are as high as ever in Stillwater, but will the Cowboys meet them?

Getty Images - Brett Derring

Oklahoma State puts great season after great season together, yet they seem to be under appreciated every year. They have five 10+ win seasons in the last seven years and a record of 68-23 over the same period. The the picture of consistency.  Name me a program that wouldn’t envy that hot streak.

Outside of two rebuilding years in 2012 and 2014, OSU has been at the pinnacle of the Big 12. However, they have not crossed the threshold, the “glass ceiling” if you will, of Big 12 supremacy. 2016 was reminiscent of the storyline that is Oklahoma State football…too little, too late.

I think it is an obvious conundrum. They struggle against in-state rival Oklahoma and they find a way to trip up against a lesser opponent along the way. That isn’t always the case since the only losses they suffered in 2010 and 2015 were to 10 win teams, but losses to ISU in 2011, WVU in 2013, and Central Michigan and Baylor in 2016 leave a stain upon an otherwise flawless decade of winning football.

Putting aside the Central Michigan debacle, the Baylor game was the “one” that got away from them in 2016. Turnovers plagued OSU and they weren’t able to dial up one of their patented comeback efforts. Not that a win in that game would have changed the outcome against Oklahoma (4-13 against Oklahoma since 2000), but I would have liked to have seen how it would have affected the team’s play down the stretch.

2017 is nearing with a chance to finally break through to the top of the college football mountain with veteran playmakers Mason Rudolph and James Washington saying “no” to the cash and returning for another go at the championship.

Add in Ateman, McClesky, and Justice Hill and you have a stable of thoroughbreds Bob Baffert would be envious of.

Oklahoma State has put together this run with offense. In fact, they may be the single reason that the Big 12 is perceived as an offense first league. Outside of 2014, OSU has ranked no worse than 22nd (2016) in points per game since 2010. Four of those seven years they have ranked in the top 10. Yet, far less than stellar defensive performance has caused the 1 to 3 losses that keep them from being regarded with the best teams in college football.

This writer believes the Cowboys are building a remarkable legacy and an enviable blueprint for rising from a mid-tier conference team to a top-tier conference team. Mike Gundy may be one of the top 5 coaches in all of college football.

Yet, there is doubt. I offer an unsubstantiated opinion. If Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Clemson, Miami, or Florida State returned James Washington and Mason Rudolph, they would be ranked no lower than 3rd in the preseason polls.

Oklahoma State will undoubtedly be ranked in the top 10, but they have to prove themselves to be considered a top 4 team and a favorite for Big 12 supremacy. Those honors will go to Oklahoma and Kansas State with OSU a comfortable number 2.

I have watched every game OSU played in 2016 and most of 2015. I can find few flaws in the OSU film. That should be the case for a team of their stature. Personally, I cannot reconcile a perception of this team as anything less than the favorite to win the Big 12 and threaten the playoffs.

That said. There is a glaring flaw in their overall resume. Defense. That is the question that has plagued them throughout the last 7 years and will be the reason they fail or succeed in 2017.

Finding room for improvement can be compared to searching for a needle in a haystack, but there are some things that bother me about OSU and that they need to focus on in order to become what I think they are.

Rudolph Expanding His Repertoire

Mason Rudolph is one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the nation. His production is outstanding and it is bolstered by his ability to avoid interceptions. There is no reason to expect his production to fall, especially given the weapons at his disposal. His largest problem may be keeping everyone happy.

As I have watched Rudolph I am impressed with his decision making. He checks down to his backs and TE’s as much as any QB I have observed. Often, he does so with space to operate and it results in a substantial gain. Rudolph throws long more than most as well. He is accurate and deft at throwing the deep ball. On a particular pass play, Rudolph will check deep, feel the pressure, and find the open check down receiver.

What I don’t see very often is a willingness to drive the ball in to tighter windows on mid-level routes. Rudolph has the arm strength to do so, and he does make those throws when they are called. But, he is more comfortable throwing touch passes to receivers that are either wide open or far enough downfield that a well placed pass will either be incomplete or caught.

There is nothing wrong with that approach, especially given the talent surrounding him, but it does provide a bit of predictability to the offense. If I was a defensive coordinator I would play man under with 2 deep safeties and force deep throws to the outside. This would have an effect on the running game and provide a greater opportunity to make interceptions. I would know that I would get beat three to four times a game, but I would take that over getting sliced up for six deep throws.

To take the offense to an even more unstoppable level, Rudolph needs to hit the mid-level drive throws. An increase in that production, at that point in the route tree, is a nightmare for defensive coordinators. If Rudolph starts driving balls in to the mid-level, then I simply cannot compensate on defense. I would have to blitz and try to get pressure or drop 8 and hope to contain them. Both are schemes that Gundy and staff can exploit.

I assume Rudolph is hoping to develop in to the number 1 NFL draft pick. To do so, he has to show competency in the mid-level passing game. He has Ateman, McClesky, and Washington to target. He should be able to find an open guy in that level and it will make an already potent offense virtually unstoppable.

Consistent Defensive Effort

While watching Oklahoma State’s game film, I noticed a trend. The defense could be soft at times. When another team played physical, or ran more than 75 plays, the defense would remain vulnerable. Yet, when a comeback was called for, or the game was in the balance, the defense would rise and play with vigor to gain stops and turnovers.

An example would be the game against Iowa State. After allowing the Cyclones to rack up 31 points in less than 3 quarters, the Cowboys stifled ISU and barely gave up a first down in the last quarter and a half. There was no scheme change. There was only better effort from the front seven and aggressive coverage on the outside. Once the offense began scoring again, the defense rallied and played at a championship level.

Oklahoma State outscored its opponents 95-61 in the 4th quarter. This included six fourth quarter shut-outs. They outscored their opponents 232-151 in the second half. These margins are substantial and bolster what I saw on film. When the chips were down, the defense showed an ability to cover and rush at an elite level.

Oklahoma State has finished outside of the top 50 in defensive metrics for as long as we can remember. The reputation for being a “shootout” team is born of this failure. Truly, they have been ladder rung below Texas Tech in their commitment to offense and disdain for defense.

Championship teams do not only play defense when it counts or when they have a chance. Championship teams play defense for 4 quarters. In fact, in the case of OSU, if they make 2 additional stops before the 4th quarter, then most of their games become laughers.

To step in to the spotlight of the championship tier, OSU needs to apply the same defensive effort they have in the second half of games throughout the entire game. It is easy to sit back and rely on an explosive offense, but winning championships is hard. A focus on defensive effort throughout the game will allow that offense to bury opponents.

Balance

My first point here may not seem to fit. But, OSU has to be able to win games where the total scoring is under 50 points.

Five out of the six total losses accumulated in the 2015 and 2016 seasons occurred when Oklahoma State scored less than 30 points. Hold this team to less than 30 and you will win the game. Twelve of Oklahoma State’s 23 losses since 2010 have come when they scored less than 30 points. Hold this team to less than 30 points and you will win the game.

How do you win “low scoring” (a relative term) games? You run the ball, get 3 and outs, and control the clock. At some point in every season, a championship team will have to grind out a victory. The Central Michigan game was an example of this. Oklahoma State did enough to win, but they left it up to the football gods by failing to stop the Chippewas (really?, they need to apply for a new nickname) and by keeping their offense on the field.

Justice Hill is an electric talent. The temptation will be to throw at a Kliff Kingsbury pace, but OSU would be wise to continue to balance the play calling. No team in the country, other than Penn State, has the ability to throw when a run is expected and run when a pass is expected more than Oklahoma State.

If OSU can avoid the pitfall of forgetting about their run options, then it may be impossible to hold this team under 35 points, let alone the necessary 30.

Are the Cowboys the Champions?

Certainly, OSU is a first tier team in the Big 12. They will be favorites in virtually every game they play. Only a supreme defensive effort will prevent this offense from scoring prolifically. Oklahoma State is only a half-step of evolution from breaking through to the national playoff.

That said, the schedule has some traps in it. Two of the first three games are on the road against bowl teams from 2016. South Alabama and a re-tooled Pitt should not be able to compete. But, in the immortal words of Coach Yoast, the Cowboys need to “…leave no doubt” in those games.

The conference schedule is favorable. Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor, and TCU, all potential losses, must come to Stillwater. The issue will be back-to-back games against Texas and West Virginia on the road. I expect Oklahoma State to be favored in both of those games, but there is little room for error.

The final trap for OSU is Iowa State. What? Remember 2011? I know you do. The Cowboys travel to Ames after Bedlam and before K State. It is a classic trap game and the Cyclones will be playing for their bowl eligibility life. A “rest” game could be very competitive if the Cowboys are not on their game.

Ultimately, I believe Oklahoma State will be the Big 12 champion and make the playoff. Absent a letdown game, the talent and system are in place for a run through the schedule. Their path is set and I believe Mike Gundy is underrated as a field general. He is a man after all.

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