STILLWATER — Kasey Dunn is under the gun.
Hey, that rhymes. Let’s keep going.
Kasey Dunn is under the gun but still is having fun under the August sun. Reason number one, he believes the Cowboys can run.
I better stop before somebody puts me in the Dead Poets Society. Maybe that sonnet was a literary disaster, but at least it had more rhythm than the Cowboy offense showed down the stretch of a 2022 season that quickly went from merry to misery.
As the last Saturday of October dawned, OSU was a top-10 team. Then the Cowboys scored 85 points over the final six games, limped to a 7-6 finish, and eight starters, five of them on offense, hit the transfer portal like sailors hit the dock after six months at sea.
Dunn is a Stillwater fixture. Been on Mike Gundy’s staff for 13 years. Been offensive coordinator since January 2020.
Dunn knows the OSU standard. Knows with a vintage OSU offense, the 2021 Cowboys would have been in the College Football Playoff. With a solid OSU offense, the 2022 Cowboys would have been at least in contention for the Big 12 Championship Game.
But OSU fell to ninth in Big 12 offensive efficiency (points per possession) last season. No way will the Cowboys be successful with a second-division offense.
And as the Cowboys open the 2023 season (6 p.m. Saturday against Central Arkansas), Dunn shows no sign of feeling pressure.
“First of all, I’m not on social media at all,” Dunn said, forgetting that offensive coordinators were roasted long before Facebook, Twitter and TikTokToe. “Second, you try to compare yourself to what others are doing and how you’re doing and the success rate. Things like that … we’ve been pretty successful for awhile.”
Maybe so. And while college football is not a patient beast, Gundy is a patient coach. In almost 19 years making the decisions, he’s never fired an offensive coordinator, other than himself, after the 2009 season, though the curious case of Sean Gleeson might have been trending that way had Gleeson not jumped back to Jersey after the 2019 season.
Dunn’s three seasons have resulted in a mediocre offense (2020), a really good offense (2021) and a hapless offense (2022).
Dunn points to the success of early last season, before quarterback Spencer Sanders and much of the offensive line was injured. And he’s right. The Cowboys weren’t bad offensively initially. But they still ranked eighth in the 10-team league in efficiency, going into October 29.
“It’s no secret,” Gundy said the other day. “We were awful running the ball.”
It’s true. Sanders was most of the Cowboy run game himself, and when the passing game disintegrated with his bum shoulder, OSU was without a means to move the ball.
Gundy indicts Dunn — and himself — for the lack of a running game.
“The facts are we didn’t run the ball well enough last year, because we didn’t put enough time in to run the ball well enough last year,” Gundy said. “Then we got a couple of key guys hurt and it became a tragedy. That’s what happened. That’s just a fact.”
Gundy didn’t talk with exasperation. Didn’t resort to an accusatory tone. But Gundy and Dunn both say the emphasis has changed.
“We put a lot more time trying to get that resolved and be a much more balanced football team,” Dunn said. “Last year, we were pass-happy, everybody knows that, and this year, I think we can go either way. If you want to get in a shootout, we can do that. If we want to grind it, we can do that. I feel much better about the situation we’re in this year.”
It’s the first of September. Everyone feels better about every situation. There have been no games to show the warts.
And warts will show. Yes, the Cowboys figure to be better at tailback, with Ollie Gordon, Jaden Nixon and Elijah Collins looking like a solid trio, and a deeper/healthier offensive line. But OSU will be hard-pressed to be better at wide receiver, with John Paul Richardson, Bryson Green and Stephon Johnson Junior gone in the portal. And Alan Bowman will have to stage a revival for the ages to be an upgrade over Sanders.
So the pressure squarely is on Dunn to maximize the talents of his offense.
“He’s been in coaching long enough to know that there’s times we could have done things better last year,” Gundy said. “And we had some things not go our way. So a combination of that, made a little bit of a perfect storm. But that’s coaching.”
Gundy is right. Dunn knows there’s pressure; he even admits to having a chip on his shoulder, not because of outside noise, but because he knows the OSU offense didn’t live up to the standards set going back to the Zac Robinson days of a decade-and-a-half-ago.
“There’s always that side of sports where you’re just ultra competitive,” Dunn said. “If you’re not, you’re in the wrong dang business. Do I want to be the best? Absolutely. Do I want us to go get a Big 12 championship? For sure.
“I got into coaching because I loved to compete. Having a chip, that’s been there for a long, long time.”
So with that chip comes a stiff upper lip, over an offense that has dipped and slipped, and badly needs to be flipped.