What to make of the 2023 Oklahoma State Cowboys? Just a few weeks ago it looked like the Mike Gundy era was on its last legs. After injuries and QB uncertainty derailed last year, which ended in a 6-6 regular season, it was generally assumed that OSU would be back to normal this year. Some coaching staff changes had taken place, but this team went 66-25 from 2015 to 2022. Gundy never got them to the playoffs, but they were also one of the toughest tests in the Big 12 each year.
That being the case, it was a bit of a surprise when the Cowboys looked so lost out of the gate in 2023. After lackluster wins over FCS school Central Arkansas and an Arizona State program trying to recover from compete disarray under their prior coaching staff, OSU hosted the Sun Belt's South Alabama and, frankly, got their butts kicked. The score was 33-7, and South Alabama nearly doubled Okie State's yardage. It wasn't a fluke loss, but an embarrassing beatdown by a team that lost to Central Michigan the next week. It seemed like this OSU team was headed down a very dark path, but they came out the following week showing some signs of life. Iowa State plays solid defense, but OSU went on the road and put up 27 points in Ames. It wasn't enough for the win, as the Hawkeyes took the game 34-27, but it was a sign that Oklahoma State wasn't as bad as they looked getting drubbed by a mediocre Sun Belt squad the week before.
The next week was a bye week, and though we only have one game upon which to judge the post-bye week Cowboys, they looked like they may have turned a corner. They played Kansas State last Friday in Stillwater and took down the defending Big 12 champs, 29-21. While weekday night games have frequently been nightmare scenarios for road favorites in those games, KSU QB Will Howard might have played the worst game of his college career, throwing three picks (and at least one was simply inexcusable), while averaging a horrendous 4.4 yards per attempt. Aside from a big 70 yard run by Howard, KSU never got their offense going, and their defense gave up just a bit too much to overcome.
What does any of this mean headed into this week? If anything, probably to expect the unexpected. This OSU team has looked horrible at times, but they're also coming off a win that could have turned their season around. Some things I'd like to point out regarding their upset of KSU though:
-they only outgained K-State by 40 yards despite being +3 on turnovers
-they likely won because of the +3 turnover margin, and we know that turnovers are not an especially reliable statistic over time, heavily influenced by luck
-K-State had the ball twice in the 4th quarter with a chance to tie the game, and self-destructed both times
-despite the mistakes, Kansas State outplayed Oklahoma State in the 2nd half
I don't mean to take OSU's big win away from them. You play the cards you're dealt, and OSU did what they had to do to get the win. My overall message is both that OSU's performances over the past two weeks still don't paint a picture of a high quality football team, but also that this is still a Big 12 roster with an excellent coach at the helm. Oklahoma State isn't a great team, but they've done enough since the South Alabama embarrassment to show that teams will at least have to take them seriously if they want to beat them.
For a while, Gundy and Oklahoma State were another Big 12 air raid offense, but he's shown adaptability in recent years. In 2021, a year in which they went 12-2, the Cowboys ran the ball 58% of the time. Last year, despite a revolving door QB situation, OSU went more pass-heavy, throwing 52% of the time. This year, while they have a few different looks they can throw at a defense, they will primarily look like a modern spread offense, frequently splitting three out fairly wide, while keeping a tight end lined up off tackle to assist with pass protection when needed. The team has once again rotated quarterbacks, but once again they've preferred to pass, on 56% of their plays to date.
Alan Bowman, for now, has clearly secured the QB1 spot. Despite mediocre passing numbers, he did take every snap against KSU, and it doesn't appear the game plan has changed this week. Bowman, a senior, may be a name you recognize. He spent three years at Texas Tech, and was their primary QB when healthy in 2020. He then transferred to Michigan, where he could never earn the starting job. Using his extra COVID year, he decided to rejoin the Big 12 looking for playing time. Despite having won the starting job, at least for now, he hasn't been consistent at OSU. He's completed just 53% of his 135 passes for only 5.5 yards per attempt. He's thrown for 748 yards and 2 TDs, while getting picked off three times. He can run hard out of the pocket when he needs to, but he won't be deployed as a dual threat QB aside from an occasional read option. The primary runner for OSU is Ollie Gordon II, with 366 yards (an impressive 6.3 per carry) and 3 TDs. Jaden Bray has been their top receiver, with 22 catches for 292 yards, despite not finding the endzone yet.
Overall, Oklahoma State has a fairly anemic offense, ranked 58th in efficiency by sp+, and averaging barely over 5 yards per play. Their defense ranks 50th by the same measure, and is allowing 5.5 yards per play, so they haven't dominated on either side of the ball. They've forced 5 turnovers in 5 games, and 3 came last week thanks to Will Howard. Otherwise, they've been leaky against the pass, allowing 7.1 yards/attempt, with teams throwing for 9 TDs on them so far. Kansas found strength in a tremendous run game last week, but don't expect similar numbers in Stillwater, where OSU has been tough against the run, allowing only 4.25 yards/attempt. Their 3-3-5 defense has produced a respectable pass rush, with 12 sacks on the season, led by Nickolas Martin (3) and Nathan Latu (2). Martin is a consistent disruptor who also leads the team in TFLs with 6.5 while junior LB Colin Oliver is 2nd on the team at 5.
For whatever reason, I don't feel great about this game. Jason Bean will presumably be the QB from the start, and Kansas has not thrown the ball much, or that well, with him at helm this year. Unfortunately, that's been the key to beating OSU, who may be able to keep the KU running attack from beating them. After bottoming out against South Alabama, there are signs that Oklahoma State is finding their stride with Bowman under center, and there are plenty of signs that while the Kansas defense may not be as bad as last year, they are vulnerable at times. This game may come down to Jason Bean's arm, and I'm not thrilled with that idea. Is Kansas good enough to roll into Stillwater and win? Absolutely. I just don't feel especially confident that we'll see bowl eligibility this weekend.
Oklahoma State 33, Kansas 28