Coming in with the youngest squad of any Power 5 conference team, Oklahoma State expected growing pains this season.
But the Cowboys also expected to progress, setting themselves up for a run back at the Big 12 title and possibly the playoff in 2015.
Armed with a collection of talented budding players such as end Emmanuel Ogbah, linebacker Seth Jacobs and safety Jordan Sterns, the defense has done just that, flashing signs it could be a formidable unit next year.
The offense, however, has been a disaster that seems to worsen with every game. The Cowboys rank last in the Big 12 in scoring in conference games. And with questions everywhere from quarterback to offensive line to coaching, Oklahoma State’s hopes for a bounce-back season in 2015 will hinge on whether players on thta side of the ball can make a rapid transformation in the offseason.
Even with little evidence to suggest it can or will.
“We need to improve,” said coach Mike Gundy. “Do I wish we were further along? Yes. Do I know for sure why we're not? No.”
Oklahoma State’s offensive identity under Gundy had always been forged on well-disciplined, tenacious offensive lines that protected the quarterback and paved lanes for the runners in a balanced attack.
But with the mastermind behind that unit, Joe Wickline, now at Texas, the Cowboys have suffered up front.
Some of it is because of injury. Devin Davis was supposed to be the cornerstone of the line at left tackle. But he has yet to return from a catastrophic knee injury suffered last August.
Some of it is because of poor luck. Both returning centers from last season retired from football, forcing Oklahoma State to shuffle linemen into spots they were unfamiliar with.
But injury and luck comprises only part of the equation.
The rest of the line has been outmanned in virtually every game this season. And they seem to be regressing, too. After giving up just 48 total sacks from 2010-14, the Cowboys have surrendered 32 already this year, including 12 sacks in their last two games. Tennessee, Penn State and Wake Forest are the only Power 5 programs that have given up more sacks per game this season.
“We have three new starters and it just takes a little while for those guys to get going,” Gundy said. “Unfortunately, we haven't been able to identify a way to get freshmen and first-year players to be as effective as we want them to.”
But while the most glaring problem has been the line, it’s hardly been the only issue.
The Cowboys went into the 2012 season armed with their quarterback of the future in Wes Lunt, who won the starting job at as a true freshman. But after injuries wrecked his first year, Lunt inexplicably transferred to Illinois in the spring, leaving the Cowboys with a void at the position. Clint Chelf admiringly filled in as the stopgap the second half of last season. But with Chelf gone, too, the position has entered a perilous transition. J.W. Walsh was knocked out for the season in the second game, leaving former walk-on Daxx Garman as this year’s stopgap. And though Garman has a big arm, his immobility and inability to burn defenses that blitz have been the imperfect marriage. Garman ranks last in the Big 12 with a completion percentage of 55 percent, leading to a conference-worst 42 three-and-outs.
“The defense has to account for one other guy when you have a mobile quarterback and right now Daxx doesn't move around in the pocket as much as J.W. did,” Gundy said. "So that's a little bit of a factor, but we just have to continue to get better.”
The only way the Cowboys will get better, though, is by solving the quarterback woes.
Walsh will be a senior and the likely favorite to start next season when he returns from a foot injury. But the offense also bogged down with Walsh behind center in 2013.
That puts immense pressure on redshirting freshman Mason Rudolph, whose combination of arm strength and mobility could be the perfect fit for the Cowboys. Of course, if Rudolph proves not to be the long-term answer, Oklahoma State could be staring down the barrel of a decline in the ever-more competitive Big 12.
Player-development issues won’t be the only element Gundy will have to evaluate in the offseason. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s two-year contract is up after this season. After stunningly getting hired from Division II Shippensburg in Pennsylvania, Yurcich has not blossomed as a play-caller the way his predecessors in Stillwater did, the way Larry Fedora, Dana Holgorsen and Todd Monken did. Gundy will also have to make a determination on whether Bob Connelly, who was coaching high school in Arizona when Oklahoma State hired him, is the position coach that can turn around the Cowboys’ beleaguered offensive line.
Barring a miracle at Baylor this weekend or at Oklahoma on Dec. 6, Oklahoma State figures to miss out on a bowl for the first time since Gundy’s debut season in 2005.
Even with such a young roster, this was not the season the Cowboys envisioned.
Without a dramatic development from the Big 12’s worst offense, 2015 won’t be the season they had once envisioned it could be, either.