On Nov. 19, 2009, Oklahoma State's future was on display, and it wasn't necessarily a good thing. With starting quarterback Zac Robinson out, backup Alex Cate started against 3-7 Colorado and completed zero of nine passes. (A 10th incompletion was wiped out by a roughing-the-passer call.) Default No. 1 receiver Hubert Anyiam was of no help, and the only reason OSU found itself down just 21-10 in the third quarter was because of solid defense and a punt return touchdown.
Desperate for a boost, head coach Mike Gundy put in third-stringer Brandon Weeden. He found Josh Cooper for two completions on a late-Q3 touchdown drive, and it was 21-17. Midway through the fourth quarter, it was 28-24 Colorado when Weeden found a redshirt freshman named Justin Blackmon for a 28-yard touchdown. Somehow, despite not completing a single first-half pass, Oklahoma State beat the lowly Buffs, 31-28. Weeden completed 15 of 24 passes for 248 yards, but he was still more well-known for the "minor league baseballer goes back to school to play football" thing. Cate was, after all, better than him in practice, apparently. And despite the lack of a true No. 1 receiver, Blackmon was seeing but a fraction of the targets directed at Anyiam.
The 2009 season was supposed to be OSU's breakthrough season under Mike Gundy; it began the season ranked ninth in the country, and following a surprising 9-4 season in 2008, the Cowboys had built quite a bit of Big 12 title buzz behind their "big three" on offense: Robinson, running back Kendall Hunter and receiver Dez Bryant. Well, Robinson and Hunter battled injuries for most of the season, and Bryant played all of three games before getting lost to NCAA suspension. OSU's offense fell from second to 82nd in Off. F/+.
Thanks to some tremendous coaching from new defensive coordinator Bill Young (OSU improved from 85th to 20th in Def. F/+), the 'Pokes at least managed to win nine games for the second straight year, even if they didn't match the preseason hype. But the season as a whole still felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. Robinson and Bryant would leave for the pros the next season, and OSU couldn't be guaranteed the same level of star power in the replacements.
Over the next two seasons, Weeden would throw for 9,004 yards and 71 touchdowns (Alex Cate threw for 183 yards as a backup at Central Washington University), Blackmon caught 232 passes and won two Biletnikoff Awards (Anyiam caught 38 passes), and Gundy's 'Pokes went 23-3 and won the 2011 Big 12 title. After ranking 23rd and 38th in F/+ in 2008-09, OSU improved to 12th and third in 2010-11.
You never really know how the future is going to play out, do you?
So now Gundy faces the prospect of having to replace Weeden and Blackmon. The task seems nearly impossible, but, really, barely more difficult than what OSU faced two years ago. At this point, it is quite easy to understand the skepticism of national media when it comes to the post-Weeden/Blackmon 'Pokes … and it is quite easy to understand why OSU fans are still quite optimistic about this team moving forward.
Oklahoma State has scored at least 450 points in four of the past five seasons, at least 530 in two of the last three. With a new line, a new quarterback, a new go-to receiver, and a new offensive coordinator, the 'Pokes raised the bar on themselves this past season, scoring 575 points on the way to an 11-win season. Brick by brick, Mike Gundy has built a program that can both withstand losses in personnel (a ton of offensive personnel departed after the 2009 season, and offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen left after 2010) and potentially compete in the big-money Big 12, where the antelope play, the money talks, and the only things larger than the offensive line splits are the homefield advantages. […]
If new offensive coordinator Todd Monken maintains an approximate level of dialed-in play-calling, and if Oklahoma State isn't struck by the injury bug the same way Holgorsen's last abandoned team was, then the Cowboys could continue building toward becoming the Oregon of the Midwest, the historically decent program looking to take a step up to the elite level on the coattails and coffers of an aggressive, ambitious donor (for Oregon, Phil Knight; for Oklahoma State, T. Boone Pickens). They would, however, probably prefer to do so without drawing the negative attention Oregon has recently drawn; been there, done that. […]
Oklahoma State has reached top 25 status in terms of both recruiting and recent performance, and there is an abundance of riches on offense and athleticism on defense. It might be about time for the 'Pokes to start experimenting with uniforms and color schemes -- it appears that's where they might stand on the moneyed Oregon Transformation.
The Oregon Transformation came together quite quickly, didn't it? First of all, OSU unveiled about 350 new uniform combinations fewer than two weeks after the OSU preview hit the Internet. Then, the Cowboys came within decimal points of competing in the BCS title game like Phil Knight's Ducks had just 12 months earlier. The 2011 surge was as dramatic as the 2010 surge. Sure, there was some luck involved (OSU was plus-3.4 turnover luck points per game in a season that saw them win two games by fewer than 3.4 points). And sure, I was firmly in the "Alabama over Oklahoma State" camp when it came to choosing the BCS title game participants following Alabama's loss to LSU and OSU's loss to Iowa State. But from 20,000 feet, those are technicalities. To reach the national title game, you must often overcome some factors outside of your control. But it is in your control to put an incredible product on the field, and Mike Gundy did just that. In 2011, his strong football program produced a devastatingly effective team. Consider...
- In seven years of the F/+ rankings, only 10 teams had finished in the F/+ top three: Alabama, Auburn, Boise State, Florida, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, USC and West Virginia. Oklahoma State became the 11th.
- Before 2011, Oklahoma State had finished in the AP top six just once: it ranked fifth in 1945. That 1945 season was also the only other time the 'Pokes appeared in a major bowl before 2011. (They beat St. Mary's, 33-13, in the Sugar Bowl.
- Before Mike Gundy, OSU had finished in the AP top 16 just five times. He's done it three times in the last four years.
Aside from one fateful night in Ames, OSU was not only consistently great on offense and consistently solid on defense -- it also got better as the season progressed.
First Four Games: Oklahoma State 33.6 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.9 (plus-7.7)
Next Four Games: Oklahoma State 34.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 26.9 (plus-7.9)
Last Four Games (Minus Iowa State): 35.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 24.3 (plus-11.5)
Played amid a backdrop of tragedy (the OSU women's basketball head coach and chief assistant died in a plane crash earlier that day), the Friday night loss to Iowa State in mid-November combined college football chaos (the Tessitore Effect), an incredible upset effort, and some odd controversy (I still don't think Quinn Sharp missed that field goal). It took OSU's worst effort of the season, Iowa State's best, and a few millimeters on a field goal to keep the 'Pokes from a shot at the national title.
Last year around this time, I was at least a hair worried about the Oklahoma State offense. Offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen had left for West Virginia, and Mike Gundy hired an old friend and colleague of his, Todd Monken, to take over. Monken's resume was, if nothing else, unique: he was Charlie Batch's offensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan, he was Les Miles' passing game coordinator at both Oklahoma State (2002-04) and LSU (2005-08), and he the Jacksonville Jaguars' receivers and quarterbacks coach for two years (2009-10). That is both an odd collection of experiences and a mixed bag. After one year of wide open success in Stillwater, would Monken try to reel things in a bit? Would he be able to to maintain the same level of play-calling prowess as his Red Bull-drinking predecessor? Monken hadn't been an actual offensive coordinator for 12 years; he had no track record from which to pull. My concerns, however, were for naught.
Granted, it probably helped having a coach-on-the-field type in Weeden, but Monken's 2011 play-calling was a picture-perfect case study in taking what the defense gives you. Opponents are forming a cloud around Justin Blackmon? That's fine; we'll throw to Josh Cooper 15 times. Opponents are selling out to prevent the deep ball? Okay, then we'll fire quick slants to Blackmon, or we'll swing the ball from sideline to sideline until they change their tactics. (This was the entire comeback strategy against Texas A&M. Hubert Anyiam, the No. 3 receiver in 2011 until he got hurt, caught 10 of 13 passes for 92 yards versus A&M, and most of that came from snap-and-throw passes to him on the line of scrimmage.) Ignoring the line of scrimmage a bit too much? Then we'll run, and run, and run, and run.
In 2011, Oklahoma State ranked sixth on standard downs, ninth on passing downs, 13th in Passing S&P+ and, by far, first in Rushing S&P+. Running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith made the absolute most of their 23 carries per game -- they combined to average 6.2 yards per carry (they gained 1,862 yards in all), score 33 touchdowns (24 by Randle), and generate a plus-56.3 Adj. POE, meaning they generated about 56 points more than the average college back given their carries, blocking and opponents. Granted, it's easier to run the ball when everybody is terrified of the pass, but on a play-for-play basis, they still ran the ball more effectively than anybody else in the country. That says something.
From a "taking what they give you" perspective, it will be interesting to see what opponents "give" Oklahoma State in 2012. Weeden is gone, as are Blackmon and Cooper (combined: 2,237 yards, 8.8 per target, and a 76 percent catch rate over 19.4 targets per game), not to mention three other solid contributors in the receiving corps: Anyiam, Colton Chelf and Michael Harrison (combined: 916 yards, 9.3 per target, 69 percent catch rate). On both standard and passing downs, Oklahoma State ran about two-thirds as much as the average team; will that average go up with both Randle and Smith returning? If opponents sell out to stop the run this time around, will the passing game be adept enough to take advantage?
Your new cast of characters in the passing game:
- Quarterback Wes Lunt. The true freshman enrolled early and surprised many by winning the starting job in the spring. Technically he could still lose it to redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh or junior Clint Chelf in the coming weeks, but it's doubtful. Lunt is Weeden-esque, in that he's big (6'5, 210 pounds) and pocket-oriented (Walsh is more of a Zac Robinson type, best utilized by mixing in the occasional run), and he put up silly numbers in a pass-first offense in high school. But he's still a true freshman, about 10 years younger than Weeden, and that is cause for at least some concern. He's going to make mistakes -- he just is -- but only one of OSU's first six opponents (Savannah State, Arizona, UL-Lafayette, Texas, Kansas, Iowa State) is likely to field an elite defense, so perhaps he will have a chance to get his sea legs.
- Receivers Tracy Moore, Isaiah Anderson and Josh Stewart. Eight wideouts were targeted at least 20 times last year, but only these three return. They combined for 1,278 yards (9.9 per target) and a 71 percent catch rate in 2011, but they will all be facing more prevalent roles (and better cornerbacks) this fall. Moore is an interesting player; a three-star, 230-pound tight end out of high school, Moore was actually one of the team's better big-play threats in 2011, averaging 14.9 yards per catch. He has trimmed down to 215 pounds (he has also apparently shrunk, ahem, from 6'4 in his recruiting profile to 6'2 today), and we'll see how much of his big-play prowess came from lesser corners and defenses shading toward Blackmon and Cooper, and how much comes from simple big-play ability. (It should be noted, by the way, that Moore already has a little "go-to" in him. His target rate rose from 11 percent on standard downs to 15 percent on passing downs, meaning Weeden sought him out quite a bit in "we need to make a play" situations. He responded with a 72 percent catch rate.) Anderson and Stewart, meanwhile, were used mostly as possession options, combining for a 77 percent catch rate. (Then again, it's hard to call Stewart a "possession option" when his last seven receptions in 2011 went for 162 yards.)
- Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith. It bears mentioning that, as successful as they were on the ground, they were also targeted a combined 65 times (5.0 per game) through the air last year. Randle has one of the best set of hands in the country for a running back; he caught 43 of 47 passes (a 91 percent catch rate) last year, albeit for just 266 yards.
- Newcomers. Four-star freshman C.J. Curry, junior college tight end Blake Jackson and redshirt freshmen David Glidden (a tiny 5'7, 171 pounds) and Torrance Carr could all work their way into the rotation as well.
Among the concerns for 2012, you could add "offensive line" if you really wanted to. OSU must replace two all-conference performers: tackle Levy Adcock and center Grant Garner. But OSU seems to lose key linemen and produce a top 20 line every year. As long as Joe Wickline is the offensive line coach -- people like Mack Brown have tried to steal him away, but he remains a Cowboy -- it is fair to assume that the line will not be a significant concern. The bigger concern right now: the "knucklehead factor." It has left Oklahoma State alone for the most part in recent years, but it is currently making itself known a bit.
Let's summarize: Oklahoma State's defense was absolutely a bit lucky in 2011. It picked off about five more passes than it probably should have, and it recovered about four more fumbles than it probably should have. A swing of nine turnovers can obviously make an enormous difference over the course of the season. That said, this defense wasn't based entirely on lucky bounces. Yes, OSU allowed a ton of yards. (It ranked 107th in yards per game allowed.) That's what happens when you a) face Arizona, Tulsa, Texas A&M, Missouri, Baylor, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Stanford, and b) do so with your own offense running at a nuclear pace (and therefore face a ton of plays).
But the 'Pokes were among the best defenses in the country at preventing big plays; they mastered the art of the bend-don't-break defense, forming a cloud, swarming to the ball, forcing opponents to run an extra play to score, then eventually forcing a mistake. You would of course rather have a defense like Alabama's or LSU's, well-coached and packed with four- and five-star talent (and speed to burn). But Young and OSU have figured out how to field a fast, aggressive, disciplined defense without the luxury of 25 blue chippers. That shouldn't change much in 2012, even if the turnover margin does at least a bit.
It does bear mentioning, of course, that OSU will have to account for three key losses. Starting ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones are both gone, taking with them 20.0 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, five forced fumbles, two interceptions and seven passes broken up. Blatnick was one of the best ends in the country, making a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage and, when realizing he couldn't make a play, getting his hands in the air to deflect passes. Senior Nigel Nicholas will move back to end this year (he has oscillated between end and tackle in his career, and he recorded 10.0 tackles for loss of his own last fall), which suggests that OSU has confidence in its set of young tackles.
Meanwhile, the secondary returns nine of the 10 players who recorded at least 6.0 tackles last year, but the one loss -- safety Markelle Martin (5.0 tackles for loss, 11 passes broken up) -- was a big one. Martin and fellow safety Daytawion Lowe were the two most important cogs in OSU's bend-don't-break defense, and the way Martin combined big-play ability with big-play prevention ability made him one of the nation's best safeties. Still, players leave, and one would hope that any single player could be replaced. With Lowe and corners Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert (combined: an absurd 10 interceptions and 25 passes broken up, plus 5.0 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles) returning, not to mention every linebacker of consequence -- likely starters Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis combined for 19.5 tackles for loss, four picks, four forced fumbles and two passes broken up last year -- it is fair to assume that the Cowboys can pick up Martin's slack. It isn't a given, however.
How exactly do you go about defining success for a team that has won 23 games in two years and is the defending conference champion, but is starting the season barely ranked and picked near the middle of the pack in its conference this time around? Expectations are quite disparate for the 'Pokes this fall, so we'll just set the bar where it was already moving before Weeden and Blackmon exploded: If OSU wins nine games for the fifth consecutive season, with a ton of turnover and a true freshman quarterback, the season was a rousing success. With Texas, TCU and West Virginia all visiting Stillwater, the schedule could accommodate this.
Oklahoma State was everything both critics and advocates said it was in 2011: lucky and incredibly good, deep and athletic but dependent on Weeden-to-Blackmon, built for the long haul but clearly peaking. Moving forward, OSU should clearly be taken seriously as a top 15 program, but it is probably not destined for another top three performance this fall.
As it is for Baylor, the 2012 season will be all about consolidating gains for Oklahoma State. (Only, it has made more gains than their conference mates in Waco.) Success is achieved in cycles, and even if OSU moves toward a down part of the cycle this fall, the depth of the tumble will tell us a lot. If Gundy's 'Pokes manage to win nine games and finish in the top 10-15 again, then, barring 2009-esque injuries there is really no reason to doubt that they will not continue to produce that level of play far into the future. If they fall to 7-5 (or worse), however, then we could see a situation where OSU is a top 15 team in the good years, with requisite levels of experience, but still capable of falling below the Big 12's midway point in down seasons.
And if they win the Big 12 again, then all bets are off. After all, the last time we all assumed a tumble was coming, the 'Pokes improved dramatically.
For more on Cowboys football, visit Oklahoma State blog Cowboys Ride For Free.
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