A breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses for the Oklahoma State Cowboys heading into Saturday's Bedlam showdown in Norman.
Wide Receivers – While many would have guessed this would have been a weakness after losing Justin Blackmon, Josh Cooper, Hubert Anyiam, Colton Chelf and others, in addition to season-ending injuries to leading returner Tracy Moore, tight end Justin Horton and heralded freshman C.J. Curry, this has actually been a strong position for the Cowboys. What lend the position its strength is its depth and unpredictability. Sixteen different receivers have caught at least one pass this season and eight players have double-digit receptions. Sophomore Josh Stewart has been the primary target with 73 receptions and 857 yards but he is far from the only weapon. Junior college transfer Blake Jackson's production has been spotty but he's a tough cover at 6-fot-3, 225-pounds with great speed. Add in the recent breakout performances by Charlie Moore and a finally-healthy Isaiah Anderson and there will be plenty to keep OU's secondary busy.
Rushing Attack – This has been an interesting area for the Cowboys. The run blocking hasn't been as good as it was the past few years but Joseph Randle leads the Big 12 in rushing with 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns on 5.2 per carry. After the way OU's defense struggled to contain West Virginia's rushing attack, the Cowboy coaching staff is likely going to give the Sooners a heavy dose of the Doak Walker Award semifinalist. Jeremy Smith is also starting to look more like himself again after struggling with injuries and the J.W. Walsh running package has been a nice addition to the offense. Overall, the Cowboys lead the conference in rushing, ranking 18th nationally with 216.7 yards per outing.
Pass Protection – Even though the offensive line hasn't been Joe Wickline's best unit in his time at OSU, as seen by inconsistencies in opening up running lanes, the pass protection has been elite. OSU ranks fifth in the nation in sacks allowed with just seven through 10 games. It's even more impressive considering the Cowboys' carousel.
Quarterbacks – Bear with me for a second. Yes, OSU's rotating quarterbacks have all had undeniable success and the trio comprises the nation's sixth-ranked passing attack. That said, the old John Madden saying of, "If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none," rings with a little bit of truth. And to make it even more difficult, OSU has three. Injuries have been a constant cause for concern and the only other reason this gets marked down as a weakness is because none of the three have gained all that much experience, something that would be heavily valued in Norman. The production has been great, however.
Red Zone – This is a byproduct of the spotty run blocking. When the Cowboy offense's field is shortened, so is its effectiveness. Yes, OSU ranked No. 12 nationally in red zone offense but the Pokes rank third in total offense, showing the lack in efficiency once the team gets inside the 20. If this seems nitpicky it's because OSU's offense doesn't have many weaknesses. The Pokes have had 55 red-zone trips this season resulting in 50 scores but 15 of those have settled for field goals.
Run Defense – This has been a major area of improvement for OSU this season and the development of the defensive tackle duo of James Castleman and Calvin Barnett has given the Cowboys the nation's 24th-ranked run defense. OU has been inconsistent running the ball this season and OU only has three teams on the schedule with Top 25 run defenses: Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State. The first two resulted in the Sooners' only losses of the season to date.
Pass Rush – This has been a recent development for OSU, which couldn't get any pressure on Arizona or Texas in early-season losses. But in the past few weeks the Cowboys have Big 12 quarterbacks running for their lives. OSU sacked Texas Tech's Seth Doege three times on Saturday and hit him early and often, rattling him into two interceptions. The Cowboys also sacked WVU's Geno Smith three times and hit him frequently in a 21-point win for OSU. The interior push from Castleman and Barnett has quarterbacks rolling out of the pocket, where the Cowboys defensive ends and linebackers have done a much better job of creating havoc.
Pass Defense – Yes, you are probably sick of hearing about this but that doesn't make any less of an issue heading into a game against OU's dynamic passing attack. The highly-touted corner tandem of Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown has underperformed and still has not produced a single interception this season. OSU ranks 95th in pass defense and was easy to point to in losses to Arizona and Texas when the secondary could not stop the opposing offense in third-down situations.
Turnover Production – This has improved lately but is still far of the pace set by last season's defense, which led the nation in turnover margin. This season OSU is tied for 95th with 14 takeaways and 92nd in turnover margin at minus-0.5. OSU can't afford to lose the turnover battle with the Sooners on the road.
Quinn Sharp – The Cowboys' kicker-punter-kickoff specialist does it all and does it as well as anyone. On kickoffs, he's retained his crown as the nation's best with 59 touchbacks on 77 kickoffs. He is also 21-for-27 on field goals with a long of 51 yards. And Sharp averages 45.1 yards per punt with a long of 74, yes seventy-four! His punt average would rank eighth nationally if he actually had enough punts to qualify for the stat.
Justin Gilbert – The Cowboys' all-time leader in kick returns for touchdowns is always a threat to take one to the house. He's on the Big 12's fastest players and opponents try their best to keep it out of his hands in the return game.
Kick Coverage – On the rare occasion Sharp doesn't boot it out of the end zone the results have been unfortunate for the Cowboys' coverage unit. OSU ranks 112th in the country in kick return defense, allowing 25.4 yards per return and two touchdowns. Both touchdown returns came in OSU losses to Texas and Kansas State. This has been a sore spot for the Pokes for several years.