STILLWATER — The Oklahoma State team plays at West Virginia Saturday couldn’t look more different than the Cowboys who staggered to an opening night win over Central Arkansas.
Or the team held to one touchdown two weeks later in a home loss to South Alabama.
After rotating three quarterbacks and splitting ballcarrying duties through a lackluster 2-1 start, coach Mike Gundy opened Big 12 play by settling on Alan Bowman and Ollie Gordon. The Cowboys’ offensive production since them has been remarkable.
With Bowman behind center and Gordon serving as the Cowboys’ lead back, Oklahoma State is coming off home wins over defending Big 12 champ Kansas State and a top-25 Kansas team. Yet Gundy insists that improvement had everything to do with the offensive line’s health and performance and nothing to do the quarterback or running back.
An analysis of the Cowboys’ offensive production with and without Bowman and Gordon in the game backs up at least one important part of his claim.
To be sure, since Bowman began taking 100% of the snaps and Gordon’s carries increased from single digits to 18, 21 and 29, the Cowboys are scoring more.
They average points-per-drive average of 2.2 compared to 1.74 previously. It’s averaging 130 more yards per game and the Cowboys’ yards sper rush went from below Gundy’s stated goal of 4.5 to exceeding the benchmark.
Still, the Cowboys has been more efficient on plays without Gordon in the game over the past three weeks than on plays with him.
Omitting quarterback kneels, here is the breakdown:
In 189 plays with Gordon on the field, OSU is averaging 6.02 yards per play. In the 34 plays with either backups Jaden Nixon or Elijah Collins, OSU is averaging 6.79 yards.
“The best way to illustrate it is our offensive line has played considerably better in the last month,” said Gundy, whose 4-2 team faces West Virginia at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday (ESPN). “It has nothing to do with the quarterback or the running back.”
Take a 33-yard rush from Gordon in the first quarter against K-State as a case study. Gordon ran untouched for the first 26 yards straight up the middle of the defense.
How did he run more than a quarter of the field through the gut of what was then the nation’s No. 5 run defense without even brushing up against a hand?
The Cowboy offensive line simply did a better job of moving people than the Wildcat defensive line.
Six Wildcats lined up within five yards of the ball. Here’s how the Cowboys opened a hole on the right side of the line big enough for three Ollie Gordons to fit through.
As soon as the ball was snapped, left tackle Dalton Cooper stood and forced the cornerback in his way, outweighed by almost 150 pounds, into retreat.
Left guard Jason Brooks chipped Kansas State defensive tackle Damian Ilalio, who center Joe Michalski walled off. Brooks squared his shoulders to block one of the Wildcat linebackers crashing from the second level.
Right guard Preston Wilson pulled left, stopping senior Wildcat defensive end Brandon Mott from blowing the play up in the backfield.
Right tackle Jake Springfield formed the right side of the hole, grabbing a fistful of Khalid Duke’s jersey, rendering the Wildcat defensive end helpless. The hold was subtle enough to avoid detection.
Sam Mayes, a five-year veteran of the OSU offensive line and an analyst for Sellout Crowd, called blocking an “every-play street fight.” The Cowboys have been winning a lot more of them lately, and consistency is a big reason why.
The five linemen responsible for Gordon’s run, Cooper, Brooks, Michalski, Wilson and Springfield are experienced (all seniors, except for Brooks, a junior). That unit has had only two starts together, the past two games against K-State and Kansas.
Wilson missed OSU’s opener against Central Arkansas with a non-football matter. Cooper exited in the second quarter of the Kansas game, which forced Springfield to shift from right tackle to left tackle. Senior Cole Birmingham, still getting his feet under him after missing all of last season with injury, has filled in when needed. Only Michalski and Brooks have started every game.
“If you have guys moving around, you’re vulnerable…Different responsibilities, different looks, playing tackle is not same as playing guard, playing on the right side is not the same as playing on the left,” Gundy said.
Michalski said he’s confident playing with anyone on the roster beside him, but that there are advantages to having consistency. He said he gets used to how wide his teammates come in for double-team blocks and what their tendencies are facing different defensive schemes.
All the double-teaming and pulling so flawlessly executed against K-State to spring a big hole for Gordon takes time to get right. Bowman said after Saturday’s game against Kansas that he’s gotten fairly used to practicing with different linemen and players around him.
But now, the Cowboy offense is starting to take shape because of a consistent offensive line and it’s resulted in two straight upset wins.
“If you think about it, this is only the third week that I’ve had with the ones that we’ve had together as an offense, realistically,” Bowman said. “We would have loved to have eight months, but that’s just not the situation that we’re in. So every week we’re going to get better.”