Hopefully you've been reading TES's invaluable State of Oklahoma series -- outstanding stuff for two straight months. But now, with just 48 hours to kickoff, and having just spent the past 6 hours watching OSU game film, I've got my own set of thoughts on this Oklahoma State football team. First up, the offense...
QUARTERBACK: Zac Robinson is both a bit better of a passer, and less capable a runner, than he's generally given credit for. After Robinson took a beating down the stretch last season, Mike Gundy has reduced his quarterback's usage in the running game. Which is not to say OSU doesn't put Robinson's solid mobility to use: The Pokes still run the zone read a dozen or so times a game and they love to roll Robinson on bootlegs to his right, where he can be a threat to run or pass (he throws very well moving that direction). Robinson has developed into an excellent quick-strike passer on short routes, throwing quickly and accurately from a high release; he's not afraid to throw downfield and has a strong enough arm to deliver some great strikes, but the accuracy wanes. Especially with Dez Bryant out, I'm guessing Muschamp will aggressively challenge Robinson's short and intermediate passing game with Earl Thomas, hanging Gideon back to handle OSU's deep challenges. I'm sure Gideon is being drilled over and over about not biting on play action, which Mike Gundy uses frequently, and well.
RUNNING BACKS: While the latest report is that if Kendall Hunter (ankle injury) plays at all he'll be limited to 8-10 touches, it won't be of too big a concern to OSU -- like Texas, the Cowboys feature several good-not-great tailbacks who are roughly equally capable of succeeding in their rush scheme. Assuming Hunter is out, senior Keith Toston will be the starter; while at 6-0, 214 he's a bigger and stronger rusher than Hunter, it's at this point unclear whether, against this Texas defense, there's any advantage in one style over the other. Watching Toston over his past three games, I'm not convinced he's not the better tailback for them, anyway -- he hits holes with plenty of speed and strength and Hunter's not so elusive that he's clearly superior. In any case, OSU's rushing success will come down to the war in the trenches. Spelling Toston will be Beau Johnson, a bowling ball, power back who rumbles downhill like Cody Johnson, with better speed and less strength. Coming out of the backfield, Toston's an improving receiver who Robinson is good at finding both on designed plays and check-downs; Muck and Robinson will need to be on their toes as coverage LBs on Saturday.
TIGHT ENDS: For all the time we've spent thanking the football gods that Brandon Pettigrew is gone, I was stunned to see in film that OSU is in such good shape with their tight ends. The guy that really impresses me is sophomore Wilson Youman, an enormous, strong, technically sound blocker with surprising speed and improving pass catching abilities. Count on OSU taking multiple shots up the seam with him like Colorado did -- again, Gideon's awareness will be key. As much recent frustration as we've had with our own offense, watching OSU it's easy to see how much better we might be with a tight end or two who can block for the run game and release out for a pass. Though the Cowboys operate out of the 11-personnel more often than not, they use three tight ends throughout the game and will go to a two tight end set a dozen snaps each contest; when they do, they run the zone read to the short side around 50% of the time. When fielding two TEs, OSU will usually bring out Youman and either Justin Horton (who possesses nice quickness but struggles in blocking) or, increasingly, Cooper Bassett, a big-bodied freshman who blocks pretty well and is easy to lose track of in the passing game.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Obviously, the big absence is Dez Bryant, but the Pokes have steadily resuscitated the passing attack in the weeks since his suspension. With 19 catches over the past two weeks, sophomore Hubert Anyiam is Robinson's favorite new target, but he's a very different receiver than Bryant. Anyiam isn't a big guy, for one thing, and he can be pushed around at the point of attack. He runs good quick routes, though, and while his vertical speed is merely good, his lateral movement is excellent; he'll make guys miss. If fellow sophomore Keith Cooper were at Texas Tech, he'd finish the season with 70 catches and 800 yards -- he's not particularly fast and rarely stretches the field, but he's a zone buster specialist, runs great routes, has terrific hands, and will catch a ball as he's taking a lick. (Yes, he's white.) When OSU goes four-wide, they'll mix between split aces and trips to the left, and Texas will need to keep an eye on the freshman Tracey Moore, who's OSU's version of Dan Buckner -- big kid with solid speed, great hands, and a dangerous ability to get open 15 yards downfield.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Pokes are strong at center and at each tackle, but have question marks at each guard position. Right guard Anthony Morgan plays far too vertically and can be muscled around; left guard Noah Franklin has good feet but lacks good drive strength. Right tackle Brady Bond is solid, but the real prize on the line is the left tackle Russell Okung -- you won't see many guys that big who can move that well. And oh does OSU like to move him -- I'm not sure I've ever seen a team shoot and pull their left tackle as often as does Mike Gundy with Okung. In their base 11-personnel, OSU loves to run to the right through the B gap, sealing the edge with Youman on the outside while pulling Okung over to the middle to crush a linebacker or stunting end.
BOTTOM LINE: I underrated this Cowboys offense prior to watching the film; they do miss Pettigrew, but this new kid Youman is a beast, the offensive line is excellent in pass protection / solid in run blocking, and the loss of Bryant -- while clearly a loss -- has been something of a blessing in disguise, forcing them to diversify their attack. Gundy and Robinson are at their best when the Cowboys are an offense you have to respect both on the ground and through the air; with each passing week in the post-Bryant era, that's becoming more a concern. They're running the ball well enough, using their tight ends in the passing game more, and finding a solid, if unspectacular, group of receivers with whom they can move the chains.
The counterpunch to that, of course, is to try to make OSU one-dimensional, and I expect that's what we'll see Muschamp open with in the first half. I expect Texas to play to the run and short passing games to test Zac Robinson and Mike Gundy on their willingness/ability to keep us honest by going deep. If they won't, or can't, the Cowboys are containable. If they hit a big play or two early, the chess game will be on.
Tomorrow: previewing the OSU defense.