Cowboys' Corral Anything But OK

The No. 1 team in the BCS travels to the worst team in the Big 12 Saturday. In other words, the Oklahoma State squad that hosts Texas is a shell of the former Top 20 team that built a 35-7 lead with 1:21 left in the half at Austin on November 6, 2004.

What a difference a year makes.

The cellar-dwelling Cowboys are just one of two winless teams in conference play, but the 0-4 Kansas Jayhawks would get the nod in a head-to-head matchup on the strength of their defense. Oklahoma State ranks last in the Big 12 in seven major statistical categories (scoring offense, pass efficiency, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, punt returns, turnover margin and third-down conversions) while ranking next-to-last in four others (scoring defense, pass offense, total offense, total defense). The Cowboys are the only Big 12 team to have gone the entire season without, at least once, meriting consideration in either the Coaches or the Harris Interactive rankings (the two BCS-related polling components).

It begs the question: how does a program that has posted three straight bowl seasons, and came close in 2004 to knocking off OU for the third time in four years, become so bad so quickly? Simply put, a late-2004 coaching change, multiple injuries, numerous off-the-field distractions, 11 true- or RS-freshmen on the two-deep chart, a new offense, and more turnovers than in a Betty Crocker delivery truck have combined to make Cowboy fans look ahead toward basketball season.

Former Cowboy QB (1986-89) and first-year coach Mike Gundy is in his dream job and should, given time, restore respectability to the program that has given us Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. But it's been a nightmare of a month as Gundy's team is 0-for-October and in danger of going winless in Big 12 play with remaining games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Baylor. The youngest head coach in D-I football, the 37-year old Gundy took over the reigns on January 3 when former coach Les Miles bolted for Baton Rouge. A few days later, RB Vernand Morency declared his eligibility for the NFL Draft. Since then, Gundy has dismissed seven players for disciplinary reasons. The toughest blow came in May when safety Vernon Grant was killed in an automobile accident.

The Cowboys' roster has begun to resemble a M*A*S*H unit as injuries continue to mount, but none more significant than the problems that continue to beset 2004 bluechip signee Bobby Reid. The QB redshirted last season after undergoing shoulder surgery but then suffered a high-ankle sprain against Missouri in what was his third collegiate start. (Donovan Woods started all 12 games last season at QB on the way to a 7-5 campaign that ended up in the Alamo Bowl. He is expected to log his second start of 2005 at SS against the Horns.)

"The biggest difference in where Oklahoma State is right now is they did not have Bobby Reid the last two weeks and they think they'll have him back," head coach Mack Brown said. "He's a guy that's a lot like Vince (Young). He can make a lot of plays with his feet and his arms."

Sophomore Al Pena, a Leander-product and Georgia Tech transfer, will likely register his third collegiate start against Texas and looks to improve upon last week's disastrous second half performance against Iowa State when he tossed four straight INTs.

"The biggest difference for them is they're minus nine in turnover ratio," Brown added. "Turnovers have killed them the past three weeks. When you're playing a team like them, it scares you in that if they fix their turnover problems, they can put you in a tough spot in a tight game on the road."

Tough spot? Tight game? On the road? Nobody is confusing Stillwater, Oklahoma with Columbus, Ohio these days. Turnover-plagued teams almost always seem to plug their leaks just in time for Texas, but this posse of Cowboys is too shot full of holes to simply say that turnovers are killing them. Gundy's program will live to see another day, but the buzzards are circling on OSU's 2005 season.

OSU OFFENSE

Part of Oklahoma State's growing pains have to do with Gundy's intent to transition the Cowboy offense from Miles' predictable, grind-it-out-style to a more wide-open, no-huddle, multiple-set spread offense.

"They have a two-back running game that they'll try to get started but it's in their blood to try to spread the field," Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik said. "They'll do anything from one-back and four-wides to no-backs. They have a variety of things."

If only Gundy had an experienced QB pulling the trigger for his Pokes. Pena is 41-of-79 for 461 yards in three games this season, but his two TDs are obliterated by nine INTS.

"He's a young guy and all those issues happen when you're thrown into a starting role and you've been a backup" Chizik said.

It's about as polite of a statement as one could make of the Cowboy offense, or lack thereof. The unit is ranked No. 100 (out of 119 D-I teams) in total offense by mustering 308.7 ypg and just 17.4 ppg (No. 102). It goes up against the Big 12's top defense that is limiting opponents to 272.6 ypg (NCAA No. 6) and whose biggest opponent the next three weeks may be sheer boredom.

As expected, the Cowboys' ground game (148.1 ypg, No. 56) is faring a little bit better than its passing offense (160.7 ypg, No. 97). The leading rusher is RS-freshman RB Mike Hamilton who has 513 yards on 110 carries this season. Backup Julius Crosslin is one of those smaller, bowling ball types (5-11, 240) who has 103 yards on 43 carries. The short-yardage back is averaging a TD every five totes.

The Cowboys are still not out of the Woods. Junior X-receiver D's Woods leads his team with 527 yards on 34 catches (75.3 ypg). He posted 10 grabs for 79 yards last weekend against Iowa State while OSU's 24 receptions were distributed among nine receivers.

The O-line has been a constant this season, with four players combining for 83 starts heading into Saturday's game. The only starter across OSU's offensive front without previous starting experience is RS-freshman C David Washington.

The Cowboys best offensive threat comes on special teams. Daniel McLemore is averaging 29.4 yards per KO return (second in Big 12 and ninth nationally) while teammate Grant Jones is fourth in the league with nine returns for 189 yards (20.3 ypg). Bruce Redden leads all Big 12 kickers by connecting on 91 percent (10 of 11) of his FG attempts, including a career-tying 52-yarder against Missouri two weeks ago.

OSU DEFENSE

The Cowboys are the league's worst team against the run, surrendering 206.3 ypg (NCAA No. 107) and would be the Big 12's most porous unit (396.4 ypg, NCAA No. 80) if it weren't for the (tee-hee) Aggies. (The Wrecked Crew defense is yielding 408.7 ypg.)

Echoing his boss, Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis said it has to do with turnovers.

"They (OSU defense) have been given a short field to work with a lot of times," said Davis. "I don't think it's their players or their scheme. It's just the situations they've been placed in."

Okay, so it's not all bad. The Cowboy pass defense is second only to Texas in the league standings, surrendering 190.1 yards through the air. Senior SS Jamie Thompson was an All-Big 12 second-team selection in 2004 and currently paces the Pokes with 56 stops, including five TFL. Backup SS Jamar Ransom is not far behind with 54 tackles.

Junior NG Xavier Lawson-Kennedy, given his notoriety as a highly-touted recruit, has yet to live up to his hype. He was slowed by a knee injury as a freshman and was overweight most of last season. He has posted just 10 tackles in seven games (five starts) this year.

Miles departure for LSU one month before Signing Day left OSU in a pinch but its most high-profile recruit was JC transfer Ryan McBean. The 6-5 junior has started all seven games this season at DT, posting 25 tackles, three TFL and two sacks.

"There is less eight-man structure than we've seen previously," Davis said. "They're showing more conventional seven-man boxes and their adjustments come from that look. They're using more three down-linemen. We don't normally see that much three down (linemen) against us because we usually have a tight end and the ability to run the ball."

Senior SLB Paul Duran has led the defense in tackles two of the past three seasons. He has 48 on the season and a career total of 299.

Of note: former Longhorn great Vance Bedford is in his first year as OSU Defensive Coordinator.


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