The emergence of QB Mason Rudolph, who shined as a true freshman last season, has brought optimism back to Stillwater. TCU and Baylor seem to be the Big 12 powerhouses again, but with Rudolph behind center, the Cowboys have the firepower to challenge the co-favorites for conference supremacy.
How the Cowboys beat you: Though Oklahoma State has built a reputation for tossing the long ball to the likes of Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon, balance has been at the core of its success. Every season from 2007 to 2012, the Cowboys boasted a 1,000-yard rusher, which in turn created space for the wideouts to maneuver downfield. Last season, due in part to injuries to its offensive line and backs, the running game sputtered. But with the addition of behemoth LT Victor Salako, a UAB transfer, and junior college RB Chris Carson (7.2 ypc at Butler CC), the Cowboys are confident they can re-establish the running game and return their patented balanced attack.
How you beat the Cowboys: From 2009 to 2013, Oklahoma State quarterbacks were sacked just twice every 100 pass attempts, the best rate in the FBS. The Cowboys, however, regressed significantly in that area last year, giving up 40 sacks, fifth worst among Power 5 conference teams. As a result, they lost QB Daxx Garman to a concussion. The Cowboys won’t enjoy much success if Rudolph takes the hits Garman endured. “When you feel comfortable with the guys up front,” coach Mike Gundy says, “you’re going to function differently than if you feel [the pocket] is going to collapse and you’re going to get hit.”
How the Cowboys beat you: Over the past two seasons, Oklahoma State has forced a punt or a turnover 64 percent of the time on third downs, a rate second only to TCU among Big 12 defenses. Indiana graduate transfer CB Michael Hunter joins returning corners Kevin Peterson, Ramon Richards and Ashton Lampkin to give the Cowboys the ability to match up against spread formations on third-and-medium or longer. Factor in reigning Big 12 defensive lineman of the year Emmanuel Ogbah, whose 11 sacks tied for third in the Big 12, and the Cowboys should be even tougher on third down.
How you beat the Cowboys: A primary weakness of the Oklahoma State pass defense last year was an inability to cover running backs out of the backfield. Almost 50 percent of pass plays that targeted RBs went for first downs in ’14. No Big 12 defense had a worse rate. This Achilles’ heel killed the Cowboys all season, and it was especially evident in the opener against Florida State, when Karlos Williams escaped uncovered out of the backfield for a critical big gain in the fourth quarter of a tight game. Some of the troubles had to do with inexperience at linebacker and safety, where the Cowboys should be more seasoned in 2015. But given the problems last year, it remains a concern.