Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Oklahoma State Spring Football Preview


In 2005, Oklahoma State lacked consistency on the offensive end. For the year, they averaged <4 yards per rush and <6 yards per pass. That’s bad. In 2006? Not so much. The ‘Pokes threw a stud WR (UNC transfer Adarius Bowman), a couple fast RB’s (Dantrell Savage, Keith Toston) and a more confident QB (Bobby Reid) into the mix, and the 2006 offense was as explosive as anybody’s in the conference. They averaged 5.18 yards per carry and 8.17 yards per pass, and went from 20 points per game to 35, a ridiculous one-year improvement. Not surprisingly, the win total increased as well, from 4 to 7. The improvement might have been more considerable had the defense not given up an average of 30 PPG in conference play. Granted, that was an improvement over the 40 PPG conference average in 2005, but the defense still left plenty to be desired. Their performance (and luck) in close games did as well, as they went 1-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

The road to bowl eligibility was a shaky one for the Cowboys in ’06. A 3-0 start (against the likes of SMS, Arkansas State, and Florida Atlantic) quickly turned to 4-3 after losses to Houston, Kansas State (31-27 in the final minute), and Texas A&M (34-33 a last-second ATM touchdown in regulation and a blocked PAT in OT). A 41-29 win over Nebraska (shades of Missouri’s 2003 victory over NU, where a tight game turned into a laugher in the 4th quarter), and a whipping in Austin (a 36-10 loss) followed, and OSU was 5-4 heading into a game against Baylor. In ’05 Baylor jumped out to a 30+ point lead in the first half. In ’06, it was OSU’s turn. They coasted to a 66-24 win and qualified for bowl eligibility. Good thing they did, too, as they proceeded to lose their last two games to Texas Tech (30-24) and Oklahoma (27-21). Their first tight win came in the Independence Bowl against a head coachless Alabama team. They threatened to blow the game wide open, blew a lead, then rebounded for a 34-31 win.

Strange coaching decisions in the OU game aside, 2006 was, without a doubt, a large success for OSU and 2nd-year head coach Mike Gundy. The offense was ridiculously fun to watch (only OSU and Boise State averaged both 200 yards rushing and passing in ’06), and the defense improved, though not enough to warrant serious contention in the Big XII South.

Key Returnees

All of OSU’s offensive weapons return, sans D’Shaun Woods. Gundy has been successful in recruiting quite a few athletes in his first couple of recruiting classes, and if somebody—possibly sophomore Atrell Woods (no relation), sophomore Jeremy Broadway or incoming freshman William Cole—emerges to replace Woods, the Cowboy offense could be the best in the conference. Junior QB Bobby Reid made unbelievable strides in ’06, though that had a lot to do with the emergence of Adarius Bowman and his ability to stretch the field. I honestly thought Bowman would declare for the NFL Draft after his ’06 season, but his return will do great things for OSU. The Cowboys also return both Savage (a senior, the offensive MVP of the Independence Bowl) and Toston at RB, along with converted fullback Julius Crosslin for short-yardage situations. The O-line returns three starters and probably won’t see much of a dropoff in performance.

On defense, the good news is, almost 100% of the LB’s and DB’s who contributed in 2006 return. They are led by potential playmakers LB Chris Collins, LB Jeremy Nethon safety Andre Sexton, and LB/safety Donovan Woods (the last of the Woods brothers). Where there aren’t proven playmakers among the back 7, there is at least experience. Guys like LB Rodrick Johnson and CB’s Jacob Lacey and Martel Van Zant have been around a while, and if they continue to show at least slight improvement, this defense probably will too. Also, Ricky Price has moved from WR to CB and has enjoyed a tremendous spring so far. That can’t hurt.

The bad news, however, is that the D-Line has to be almost complete reconfigured. Gone are Ryan McBean, Victor DeGrate, and Larry Brown. In their place are some experienced players (DE’s Marque Fountain, Nathan Peterson), but they have not been consistent enough to earn a continuous starting position over the last couple of years. How the D-line holds up will determine how much success OSU will have in 2007. However, the Pokes will benefit from returning all of their major special teams contributors, including stud punter Matt Fodge and scary return man Perrish Cox.

Spring Developments

Honestly, the key contribution might not come from any of the players listed above—it might come from new defensive coordinator Tim Beckman. Beckman was Jim Tressel’s cornerbacks coach at Ohio State in 2005 and 2006 after spending six years as Bowling Green’s defensive coordinator. He will be mixing in a lot of different schemes and unpredictability, and his defensive adjustments have been the major storyline in the spring. Among other things, he has turned Donovan Woods into a hybrid at safety/LB. Expect Donovan to line up in many, many different spots in the formation.

The other storyline has probably been the emergence of WR Artrell Woods. He didn’t do too much as a freshman last season, but he’s shown significant big-play potential so far this spring. Of course, he’s making these big plays against the OSU secondary, so you don’t really know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but Woods’ play possibly fills in two holes—the need for a big play guy to lineup across from Adarius Bowman, and the need for a stud WR named Woods. Seriously, they’ve had a Woods at WR since about 1998.

Fun With Numbers

By the numbers, here are the five biggest keys to success for OSU in 2006:

1. Opponents’ Completion %
2. Opponents’ Yards Per Passing Attempt
3. 3rd Down Conversion Ratio
4. Rushing Yards
5. Opponents’ Turnovers

This paints a pretty telling picture. First off, looking at these indicators probably tells you that the defense was pretty bad. It also tells you that big plays (big runs, big 3rd down stops, turnovers) allowed OSU to sometimes overcome the overall crappiness of the defense.

It also reaffirms that the defense needs to improve significantly this season. Will they? Read the above paragraphs and let me know what you think. I have no idea. One thing I do know is, the schedule gets tougher. Here’s the slate of 2007 road games: Georgia, Troy (I just gave every Mizzou fan nightmares), Texas A&M, Nebraska, Baylor, Oklahoma. If OSU goes 3-3 in these games (presumably, wins over Troy and Baylor and an upset of somebody else), they are in good shape for a strong bowl, as they’ll be favored in 5 of 6 home games. I really like the potential and athleticism of this squad, but that’s a tough set of road games. With this schedule, I’d say 8-4 is the best OSU can hope for. It’s unfortunate for the Cowboys that they don’t get another shot at last year’s schedule, I guess. This is a really fun team to watch, and with a big win or two, people will start to notice.