For the second weekend in a row, two undefeated Big 12 Conference teams will square off in Boone Pickens Stadium.
No. 19 Oklahoma State takes on Baylor at 6 p.m. Saturday, and coach Mike Gundy said the Bears are the best team the Cowboys have prepared to face at this point in the season.
No. 21 Baylor entered the rankings this week after squeaking past Iowa State, 31-29, with a boost from Trestan Ebner’s 98-yard kickoff return touchdown in the second half. The Bears are carrying that momentum into Stillwater, and it’s time to buckle up, Cowboy fans – Gundy said he anticipates another game that will be decided in the fourth quarter.
Based on how the season has unfolded so far, his prediction seems accurate, but it partially depends on which version of OSU’s offense shows up. Will it be the dynamic, versatile unit that thundered through the first half against Kansas State, or will it be the Cowboy offense that scored no points after halftime? Or will we see both again?
Here are four questions OSU will need to answer Saturday.
First down: Can the Cowboys extend their first-half productivity through four quarters?
During the past weekend, as the Cowboys opened conference play with a 31-20 victory against Kansas State, everything suddenly gelled for the offense in the first half.
Running back Jaylen Warren was zooming ahead for extra yards, picking up where he left off against Boise State. Receiver Tay Martin revitalized the passing game in his return from an ankle injury. Spencer Sanders lived up to his identity as a dual-threat quarterback, scoring on one rushing play to go with his two touchdown passes and 344 yards through the air.
The early spark disappeared in the second half. The Cowboys added all 31 points before halftime and 21 in the first quarter alone. With help from a stout defense – including Malcolm Rodriguez, who scored on a fumble return – OSU did enough to fend off the Wildcats. But what will happen when the Cowboys face a Baylor team that averages 42.75 points per game, more than OSU has scored in any matchup this season?
The Cowboys can’t take any points for granted, especially when facing a squad with a guy like Ebner who could flip the entire script of the game with one long kickoff return. For maximum security, the Cowboys have to figure out the key to maintaining their high-powered offense through four quarters.
Minimizing penalties could be one solution. After the Kansas State game, offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn said penalties held OSU back in the second half, sometimes leaving the Cowboys stuck in reverse if they couldn’t make up for the yardage they lost.
One of these infractions resulted from a chippy exchange – K-State linebacker Ryan Henington attempted to bring Sanders down after a play, and offensive lineman Cole Birmingham was called for unsportsmanlike conduct when he came to his quarterback’s defense, though there was no call on Henington for a late hit.
Moments like this happen from time to time, but when penalties stack up, it’s tough for a team to score. If the Cowboys want to ensure a victory against Baylor, they’ll need all the positive yardage they can get.
Second down: How will the offense make sure Jaylen Warren gets some rest?
Warren received an IV to help him play through the end of OSU’s matchup against K-State.
Initially, Gundy was concerned Warren was sweating too much. Later, he realized perspiration wasn’t necessarily the issue, and it might have been sheer adrenaline instead. On Monday, Gundy said, “...we couldn’t get him calmed down, so we hydrated him some.”
Whatever the case, Warren ended up fine, accumulating 123 yards on 27 carries against K-State. Before the season started, Gundy said if a running back gets on a roll, the Cowboys will likely stick with him instead of dividing carries among four rushers, though in an ideal world, they would rely on even distribution.
There’s no question Warren is a driving force for this offense, so it makes sense to keep handing the ball to him.
At the same time, a star rusher needs some backup. Warren had to be exhausted after rolling, sliding and throwing his body around to gain yardage. Injuries to LD Brown and Dezmon Jackson reduced the Cowboys’ options at running back, though Dominic Richardson played.
Richardson’s involvement is important to this team. So is a strong passing game, which can keep Warren from getting fatigued. The Cowboys need to protect Warren while making sure he has opportunities to do what he does best, so a balanced offensive attack is key.
Third down: How will the defensive line adjust without Brock Martin?
Brock Martin left the K-State game with an injury and returned on the sideline for the fourth quarter with his left arm in a sling.
This is the latest depth issue for a defensive line that has already lost Trace Ford for the season because of ACL injuries. It’s no question the D-line will have to make adjustments, but the road shouldn’t be too rough, thanks to a standout freshman.
Defensive end Collin Oliver has already shown he can make big plays, and now, he’s stepping into a starting role to fill in for Martin. No one ever wants to see a starter sidelined, but fortunately for the Cowboys, Gundy said Martin’s injury shouldn’t be season-ending and is mostly a matter of pain management.
As Martin recovers, expect to see continued growth from Oliver.
Fourth down: Who will show up for the 2011 team reunion?
OK, this might not bear any weight on the outcome of the game, unless the Cowboys decide to throw mysterious new quarterback Wrandon Beeden into the game for a thrilling final touchdown pass.
In all seriousness, it should be exciting to see which Cowboy football alumni gather in Boone Pickens Stadium as the 2011 Big 12 champions are honored. It’s time to relive the era of #Weeden2Blackmon, the 44-10 Bedlam victory, the consistent special teams contributions from Quinn Sharp and more. OSU has already confirmed Brandon Weeden will be there to lead the “Orange Power” chant.
With members of the 2011 team in the stadium, will the current Cowboys have extra motivation to replicate the high-scoring, explosive offensive performances from that year? Gundy said the way the Cowboys played in the first half of the K-State game reminded him of his teams from the past 15 years, so they have potential to do it.
If they can, that could be the icing on top of a celebration for former Cowboy stars.
Hallie Hart is sports reporter for The Stillwater News Press. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.