At the risk of cliché, while Oklahoma State technically shouldn’t have lost on that miraculous Hail Mary hook-and-ladder against Central Michigan, the Cowboys never should have been in that situation. A big reason for losing in such tragic fashion stemmed from the Cowboys’ inability to produce on third down on both sides of the ball. That will certainly be a focus against Pittsburgh on Saturday.
“The routine was the same. We were poor on third-down defense, and we were terrible on third-down offense,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said. “That’s really what it came down to.”
That’s a blunt way of putting it. The Pokes allowed Central Michigan to convert 8-of-15 third downs. Quarterback Mason Rudolph wasn’t much help converting those situations for the Pokes, ending the day with one converted third down in 11 tries.
The ebb and flow of the game was defined by two drives for Central Michigan. After punting the first three drives, the Chippewas converted two third downs, including a 24-yard touchdown pass on third-and-20 to bring the game within a possession.
That was later followed by a 12-play drive with three conversions to tie the game. The scoring march continued due to a brutal 15-yard penalty that moved the chains instead of stopping the drive at midfield. On offense, the run game failed to do its fair share in a 50-yard performance on 26 attempts.
“It’s a week-by-week improvement. I think those guys have come a long way from last year and they continue to improve and we’ve got a couple of young guards in there,” Gundy said. “There’s an experience component there with those new guys. As a unit, I think they’ve done great and will continue to improve and be just fine.”
Breaking down that unit, a point of focus falls on Chris Carson and Justice Hill, who lead the running backs with 13 and 11 carries each. Gundy has high expectations for Hill, a true freshman who — his coach has said — has done a “great job of absorbing information.” He leads the team with 64 yards on the ground, beating out Barry J. Sanders, who jumped into the system at the same time as Hill.
Getting past Pittsburgh’s defense will put this offense through the wringer. The Panthers allowed Penn State to convert just 2-of-10 third-down attempts, rushing for just 70 yards on 31 attempts. A lot of that success stems from the staunch defensive front led by end Ejuan Price and tackle Shakir Soto — two NFL prospects.
Not only is the defense firm against the run, but the Pitt offense has legs of its own, rushing for 341 yards last week. James Conner has 215 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns this season. Last week he had a third-down touchdown to put the game out of reach for Penn State.
It will be a shared responsibility to contain the former ACC Player of the Year, but one name to keep an eye on is Cowboys defensive tackle Motekiai Maile, who Gundy said has impressed him so far. Through two games, the senior transfer has four tackles (one for a loss) and one batted pass.
While people are questioning whether the asterisked loss to Central Michigan will impact a potential playoff bid, it’s vital this game goes right. Finishing and ending drives with precision will certainly be a central part of the equation.