Much thanks to Pistols Firing Blog‘s Steven Mandeville, who answered some questions for us. Will update with PFB updates with my answers.
1. Oklahoma State has done a fantastic job of recovering from the Central Michigan loss. How was Gundy able to get the team past that key point in the season?
Having the Pittsburgh game the following week was crucial and it really did feel like the season could get awful 2014 really fast. A win against a Power 5 opponent was the balm on a lot of wounds but the mental toughness of the team was tested again with a close loss at Baylor in the opener. Gundy talked this week in his presser about three key qualities they can’t show on the sideline: fear, fatigue and frustration and while that sounds like coach talk, they’ve been composed late in games. The culture combined with solid veteran leadership (Rudolph, Michael Crabtree, Jordan Sterns, Vincent Taylor) and a soft patch in the schedule (Iowa State and Kansas) made for time to get momentum.
2. What’s been the biggest key for Mason Rudolph in his improved play this year?
You could pin it on a few different things that are stereotypes (maturing, knows the system better, developing chemistry) but really its on a couple of things: more red zone play and an improved offensive line. Because of the poor offensive line and running back play, backup quarterback JW Walsh came in to shore up the poor ground game inside the 20’s often swiping the touchdowns (13 scores for Walsh) from Rudolph who got them there. With Walsh graduating and the offensive line improving, it’s been the Rudolph show and the numbers have improved. Rudolph has cut back on some of his fumbling issues (small hands is the best guess), thrown more judiciously cutting back on interceptions and spent time with former OSU quarterback Zac Robinson who helped a lot with his footwork in the offseason. Improved run game (3.27 to 4.18 in conference play) has taken some pressure off of #2 and kept defenses more honest as well. Worth noting, Rudolph has been a different guy in Boone Pickens.
3. Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, for my money, appear to be the top two teams in the Big 12 right now, what has been the key to have the Cowboys streaking at this point of the year?
I think there’s a few things: solid fourth quarter play, a lot of home games (6 of 9 in Stillwater), improved offensive balance and a refreshed defense. When K-State picked off Rudolph with 8-9 minutes to go in Manhattan (historically a house of horrors for the Pokes), the team didn’t panic getting a couple of key stops and some slick playcalling going deep to Washington when they had been taking that away all day. The Cowboys are allowing 4.6 points in the 4th quarter, good for 17th in the nation and a sign that they have been able to get the stops when needed. When Tech stopped the 18-Wheeler in the 4th quarter to give the offense a shot, it’s that sort of stuff. I mentioned the improved running game, we inserted a couple of new guards this year and that’s spurred some improvement but freshman Justice Hill has been a revelation. OSU isn’t ever going to be a ball control offense, but not having to throw all the time has been super helpful. Defensively, the Cowboys just got roasted at the end of the schedule last season after a long game in Lubbock and a physical game in Iowa State, Glenn Spencer has leaned more on backups defensively this season. A 5,6 deep defensive tackle rotation aided by a last minute Baylor transfer has worked wonders in the trenches as well.
4. We’ve been talking about Texas Tech’s lackluster start to Kingsbury’s 4th year as Texas Tech’s head coach. While Mike Gundy had a break-through year in his fourth year going 9-4. What do you think was the reason for that surge after a losing season and then two 7-6 seasons?
I think winning is a bit of a cultural thing (see Oklahoma, University of) and so much of it is mental: an early season win at then #3 Mizzou was monumental. OSU had been plagued with years of road losses and that win gave them the confidence to right the ship. Now, Gundy consistently points to guys like tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Zac Robinson as culture changers. NFL talent didn’t hurt either (tackle Russ Okung, corner Perrish Cox, running backs Keith Toston, Kendall Hunter, receiver Dez Bryant).
A couple other key shifts for Gundy was finally starting to get his guys in there (three stars who fit the culture not the guys Les Miles brought in to win and move on), hiring Bill Young at defensive coordinator to shore up the poor tackling and lack of fundamentals and in 2010 when Gundy finally handed over the reigns to Holgersen offensively and stepped into more of a CEO role.
5. Oklahoma State has been sorta “meh” on defense, not great, but not terrible, what has been the issue with the OSU defense?
The defense from an OSU perspective has been good, not great. They’ve especially struggled with running quarterbacks (Iowa State, K-State) and the bend-not-break philosophy hasn’t been flattering statistically. Now if you want an overview, strengths are defensive tackle and safety, with some playmakers in that linebacker/safety spot but corners have been very up and down and the middle linebacker (Whitener) makes tackles but isn’t as fast/good at coverage as the 4* linebacker he replaced (early retirement from injuries). Pressure from the end spot has been inconsistent with Emmanuel Ogbah in the pros but tackle Vincent Taylor is a superb disruptor in the middle and the corners were roasted on some double moves early in the season against Baylor, causing the defense to lean more towards safety help and pulling guys out of the box.
The Cowboys lead the league in turnover margin and while part of that is Mason being more careful, they’ve forced more than anyone both in and out of conference play and that’s been the cause for some of the W’s when the yardage numbers don’t necessarily pan out.
6. Give me three or so players on offense and defense that we should watch out for on Saturday?
Offensively, you come to watch Mason Rudolph and James Washington make connections while you can, as they’ll likely be following Mahomes into the NFL this year or next. Washington compares more to Rashaun Woods (Cowboy great in the early 2000’s) than Dez Bryant or Justin Blackmon, an excellent possession receiver that’s undersized (5’11″/6’0″ at best) with underrated athleticism. True freshman running back Justice Hill is said to have a vertical matched only by Barry Sanders (dad not son) per Gundy and gets to the corner faster than the rest of the backs in the stable.
On defense, keep an eye on tackle Vincent Taylor as he’s bound to break through, especially on a field goals. Hybrid linebacker/safety Jordan Burton will use the hit stick in space and Ramon Richards at corner will either be your favorite player at the end of the day (because Giles/Cantrell toasted him) or you’ll be ready for him to graduate as he saved the game with an interception. Cowboy fans will go into the game with the same mindset on Richards.