September 30, 2009

What We've Learned: OSU football in '09

Today is the last day of September, which means a month of the college football season has elapsed.

For Oklahoma State, that means four games gone and a bye week this week before hitting the meat of the schedule in the Big 12 Conference. This seems like an opportune time to reflect back on the season so far and what we've learned about this year's Cowboy football squad. Everything that follows is entirely subjective and up for debate, but it's a football-free weekend in Orange Country and we all need something to talk about anyway.

So without further ado, let's take a look back on the first third of 2009.

The win over Georgia was huge. This, obviously, goes without saying. The game, focused on for months by the OSU program, was the big chance to storm the national college football stage. Coming into the season ranked ninth, the Cowboys were able to post a big win at home against a brand-name SEC opponent. That win moved OSU up to No. 5 in the polls and put the world in its crosshairs. For a week, anyway. Even though this win was followed up with a dud performance a week later…

…the loss against Houston isn't all that bad - now. OSU has a history of gut-wrenching, snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory performances. So why was the loss to Houston such a surprise to us? Because this year was going to be different, right? And even though the loss blasted away all that momentum from the win over UGA, now that it's almost three weeks away from the shock of it all, that loss doesn't really sting anymore. The Cougars look like the latest non-BCS party-crasher-in-waiting and have an excellent quarterback in Case Keenum. They might win out, although an Admiral Ackbar special awaits the Coogs in Starkville on Oct. 10. But now that the dust has settled, it can be said that Houston is a very solid team and has the ability to finish the year highly-ranked. In short, this ding won't come back to haunt the Cowboys.

The offense has been largely unimpressive. OSU fans have become spoiled in recent years by the amazingly-efficient offense the Cowboys have produced. The 2007 and 2008 campaigns resulted in big numbers and big accolades for the skill players. But this year the explosive offense has largely fizzled, sleepwalking through the first three first halves of 2009 and not really waking up until the game against Grambling, a clearly-overmatched opponent. There seems to be questions all over the place, which need to be addressed and fixed soon if this team wants to win more than eight games. The offensive line has been a nagging problem and until Jeremy Smith came along last week, the ground game was constipated.

The defense is making strides - but it needs time. You can only advance so far when a unit features many players from the past few seasons - when the defense was offensive. But Bill Young is changing the culture on that side of the ball and, from an enthusiasm/effort perspective, things are already getting better. But it's not close to being where it needs to be. That will simply take time. Younger, more-talented players are in the pipeline and will contribute more as time goes on. You can only do so much with what's there at this point.

Grambling showed a glimpse into the future. It might numb the minds of some, but there were plenty of individual bright spots that could be taken away from the game against the Tigers. For starters, the performance of Smith was worth the burning of a redshirt. My take is this wouldn't have been done if the coaching staff wasn't worried about the near future of Kendall Hunter. It's unclear when he'll return and, while effective in their roles, neither Keith Toston or Beau Johnson can fill Hunter's spot. But it looks like Smith might. And it was important to get him reps before Big 12 play. He didn't disappoint, breaking off some exciting chunk runs that had everyone dreaming of what might be to come. Also, the wide receiver spot might have come a little more into focus. With Dez Bryant out, it meant OSU quarterbacks had to look for other targets without No. 1 on his chest.

To that end, both Dameron Fooks and Josh Cooper took steps toward solidifying spots as legit options opposite of Bryant. Fooks had a breakout game, showing he could be relied upon as the chief target in the absence of No. 1. As for Cooper, he was willing to do his best impression of Wes Welker, cutting down the middle of the field to make catches with defenders all around. Right now, a 1-2 punch of Bryant and Fooks with Cooper in the slot doesn't seem all too bad for the orange and black.

At quarterback, Brandon Weeden displayed solid decision-making abilities that might have jumped him to No. 2 on the depth chart (even if there's no official change). While he didn't get many opportunities to throw, he showed he was the best pure-passer on the team, making crisp throws and looking off his first receiver when not open. He might not be as flashy as Zac Robinson, but his footwork in the pocket and scrambling ability was workable. There's absolutely no quarterback controversy for 2009, but Weeden's show, in my opinion, puts him in the driver's seat to take over for Robinson in 2010.

The approach in ticket sales is working. Over 56,000 for Grambling? Over 50k for Rice? Are you kidding? Numbers that big for schools not named Oklahoma, Texas or Arkansas? Um yeah, things seem to be going pretty well on this front. The old mindset of not being able to draw big crowds is finally dying. Either that, or fans have finally decided to start showing up to see OSU and not who OSU is playing.

Obviously, there's not enough space to address everything about the season so far, but this covers a solid chunk of it. There's obviously a lot of football left and the Cowboys have enough tools to be a force in the Big 12 race this year. It should be an interesting ride the rest of the way and it will also be interesting to see what happens with some of the above topics over the next few months.

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