In 2015, Oklahoma State had just one rusher eclipse 100 yards in a game. This season, one running back has already reached that milestone twice. An experienced offensive line has created a measure of that progress, but Justice Hill is making the biggest difference.
True to the recent trend of the Big 12’s upper echelon of running backs, he happens to be a freshman and will only get better. Think of Iowa State’s Mike Warren from last season or — if things go just right — Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine.
To put things in better perspective, during the Cowboys’ non-conference slate, they averaged 98 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Rennie Childs and Chris Carson gained the bulk of carries and the latter hit 101 yards against Pittsburgh but dozed off with 35 yards on 18 carries against Baylor.
It’s the Baylor game when Hill’s narrative truly starts. He went off for 122 yards on 20 carries. While Baylor’s defense has not been dominant against the run, the Bears were able to limit the entire Oklahoma State offense except Hill. The only downfall to Hill’s coming-out party is that he also had two vital fumbles that helped Baylor snatch the dubya from OSU’s grasp.
“Got to take care of the ball. Doesn’t do any good,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said following the Baylor game. “If you don’t take care of the ball, it doesn’t do us any good to have you in there. And he’s a freshman, I understand that. But he’s got to learn to take care of the football.”
Hill’s otherwise successful day helped the Cowboys control the game, staying on the field for 41 minutes to avoid a track meet Baylor wants. With other high-powered offenses from Texas Tech and Oklahoma on the horizon, ball control is paramount. Hill can be the guiding hand for his team so long as those hands stay on the pigskin.
If not for those costly fumbles including one inside Baylor’s five-yard line, the Cowboys might be standing with just one asterisked loss against Central Michigan.
The most encouraging news for Oklahoma State is that Hill is learning what he needs to learn. The Tulsa freshman responded well in last week’s 49-31 win over Texas. Hill finished the game with 135 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. He also didn’t have a fumble.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich still wants more from his standout freshman.
“Another tremendous game, obviously, statistically,” Yurcich said Monday.
“He still has room to improve, still has a couple of bad reads in there and can even get better. He has a tremendous work ethic and did a great job protecting and securing the football, so I’m excited about him and how much more he can grow and how much better he can become. It’s very encouraging.”
Pundits thought Oklahoma State would have a better rushing offense this year, but they usually pointed to Stanford graduate transfer Barry J. Sanders to be the man of the hour. Sanders has only 17 carries for 32 yards this year, providing more on special teams than on offense. Instead of Sanders, the biggest waves have been made by Hill, a three-star recruit who only arrived on campus this summer.
Those waves might get bigger soon.