With two losses, Oklahoma State seems to be written off in the Big 12. The Cowboys were dangerously close to falling to last-place Iowa State as well. However, thanks to considerable upgrades beyond the starters, this team has kept itself in the hunt. If other teams can’t stay as fresh as the Pokes have, a Big 12 title is certainly within the realm of possibility unless Baylor — who beat the Cowboys — runs the table.
There are two ways Oklahoma State has shown its depth. First, it has replaced wounded playmaker Marcel Ateman at receiver. Secondly, there’s been a deliberate move to cycle players through the lineup, something coach Mike Gundy contributes to winning the ISU game two weeks ago on a late 17-0 run.
“In the latter part of the third or fourth quarter in most of our games this year, you’ll see that teams weren’t as effective at running some of the plays that they were effective with early in the game,” Gundy said during his weekly radio show Tuesday night. “I think that a big reason for that is the depth in the defensive line. We did make adjustments, but the depth played a huge role.”
It’s a change of pace from last season, when all the Cowboys needed for a formidable defensive front was Emmanuel Ogbah’s power moves aided by Jimmy Bean. This year, that star personality is replaced by a consistent rotation that has yielded three sacks per game, currently led by backup defensive tackle Dequinton Osborne with 3.5 sacks.
Something should be said of the Pokes’ recent inability to completely contain quarterbacks — both Seth Russell and Joel Lanning ran free from the pocket. That’s the downside of being an all-in defense: allowing counterproductive big plays. That said, this two-deep defensive line is also a big reason for the 50 tackles for loss this season, making the Cowboys the only team in the Big 12 to rank in the top three of both sacks and tackles for loss.
Moving on from the defense, the more noticeable depth on this roster is evident in the offense, where Ateman has been missing all season. In his absence, James Washington has taken on an even greater role and done so magnificently, as has Jalen McCleskey, who has become the resident possession receiver.
Washington had a big sophomore season last year, crossing the thousand-yard barrier with 10 touchdowns. This year, he’s been an unstoppable force for Mason Rudolph, currently on pace for over 1,500 yards and a dozen touchdowns while maintaining an average reception length over 20 yards. The way he’s been playing, there doesn’t seem to be a rush to get Ateman back on the field, with the team considering redshirting him for another year of eligibility.
A new rushing attack has been formed to complement the passing game. True freshman Justice Hill is rising to the top. He came into the season with higher expectations relative to backfield mates Barry J. Sanders, Chris Carson, and Rennie Childs. Of those three, only Childs has over 100 yards to his name while Hill has topped 400 yards, primarily from the last four starts.
While that’s not too promising a stat sheet if Hill ever exits a game, it does go to show how deep the team originally dug to find a diamond in the rough like Hill, who was only a three-star recruit. The same could happen again under the right circumstances. With Kansas coming up on Saturday, this could be the week to work with new permutations to find the next group that will catch fire.