From 2010-2012, the Oklahoma State Cowboys featured some of the nation's most prolific offenses, finishing no lower than No. 14 in S&P+ over the those years, as talented players like Justin Blackmon, Joseph Randle, and Brandon Wheeden helped key attacks that put fear into opposing defenses.
So it's odd to check the S&P+ rankings and have to scroll down to No. 47 to find Oklahoma State this season -- what was beginning to appear to be a plug-and-chug attack under head coach Mike Gundy and a revolving cast of offensive coordinators has failed to gel this season, as quarterback JW Walsh couldn't build on an injury-hampered freshman campaign that was one of the most efficient in the country, the loss of Randle and several offensive linemen has clearly hurt the running game, and besides Josh Stewart, the wide receivers haven't been as productive as expected of a team that returned five of the top six pass-catchers from last season's strong group.
The further good news for Texas this weekend is that Stewart is hampered by an ankle injury that caused him to leave last weekend's game against Kansas, putting his status for Saturday's contest in jeopardy. The leading returning receiver in the conference entering the season, Walsh's former teammate at Guyer is in the midst of an impressive junior season highlighted by two punt return touchdowns.
If Stewart can't play, the Cowboys will be without their most explosive player offensively.
In the past, the Oklahoma State run game could step up to relieve pressure on the passing game. Offensive line coach Joe Wickline was a target for the Longhorns during the coaching search following the 2010 season, but reportedly declined the offer to coach at Texas -- his reputation as one of the best in the business has been well-earned over the years, as he has turned groups of unheralded prospects into dominant run-blocking offensive lines.
That has not been the case this season. Consider running back Jeremy Smith, the back up to Randle who averaged 7.1 yards per carry as a freshman in 2011, 5.1 yards per carry last season, and is now picking up just 3.5 yards per attempt this season and is now relegated to a back-up role one again behind Desmond Roland.
Overall, the running game ranks No. 38 nationally S&P+, a number aided by Roland's unexpected 219-yard explosion against Iowa State in late October. The 4.45 yards-per-carry average ranks No. 64 nationally.
At quarterback, Clint Chelf has provided some stability in replacing JW Walsh, putting up an adjusted QBR that is right around where Case McCoy ranks. The senior has had some bad moments, like an interception that was returned for a touchdown against Texas Tech late in the first half, but overall has an acceptable interception rate of 2.6%.
On the play, Chelf badly missed the linebacker undercutting the quick out route and throws it right to him, suggesting that the senior does not always identify those underneath players in coverage.
Chelf has also had accuracy problems this year, as he's completed just over 50% of his passes, an extremely poor number that ranks ahead of only Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps in the conference. Those struggles may have something to do with overall issues on third down for the Cowboys, as the conversion rate sits at 34% over the last four games.
Remarkably enough, however, Oklahoma State ranks No. 18 nationally on passing downs, so keeping the Pokes behind the chains isn't necessarily a guarantee to get the offense off the field.
Despite being known as the pocket passer of the two, Chelf has shown good wheels in the last several weeks, gaining more than 80 yards on the ground in games against Iowa State and Texas Tech, and posting runs of longer than 20 yards in each of the last three games, highlighted by a 67-yard touchdown run against the Red Raiders that generated most of his yardage on the ground in that contest.
On 3rd and 9, after little success passing the ball in those situations, Oklahoma State went empty and called a quarterback draw for Chelf to widen the linebackers and a missed tackle near the line of scrimmage and bad angle by a safety sprung him into the open field, where he was able to out-race the rest of the Red Raider defense to find the end zone.
"He's got 'get away from the cops speed,'" said play-to-play analyst Gus Johnson.
So the Longhorns will have to be careful about Chelf and his running ability, as Oklahoma State will also run some zone read with arc blocking, the type of play that Texas struggled to defend earlier in the year.
The rest of the running game found some success on inside zone against Texas Tech, as the interior of the offensive line was able to create some consistent movement in the first half to open up some holes for Roland and Smith, who also found some success in off-tackle runs.
If Texas can't stop the Oklahoma State running game, it could turn into a long day, especially since the running game can open up opportunities for play-action passes. West Virginia targeted the Texas linebackers last week, especially Dalton Santos, and wide receiver Tracy Moore is a dangerous threat from his inside receiver position in four-wide sets, so the defensive front for the Longhorns needs to find success stopping the run without having to creep the defensive back responsible for bracketing Moore closer to the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys scored 58 points against the Cyclones and 52 points against the Red Raiders after putting up 33 against Kansas State and 24 against TCU. Texas may have to hold Oklahoma State to a number closer to the latter two games if they want to have a chance win, as the defense under new coordinator Glenn Spencer is an extremely salty unit that is giving up only 19.7 points per game.