The Arizona Wildcats are beginning to feel a little bit like a conference opponent for Oklahoma State as the teams prepare to face off for the third consecutive season.
"We've played Arizona for the past two years, so we kind of know what to expect when it comes to them," OSU receiver Isaiah Anderson said. "Every year brings a new challenge though, and we're ready for it. It almost feels like we are establishing a new rivalry with them … I expect it to be a hard-fought game."
Every year does bring on a new set of challenges but this third meeting should be considerably different from the previous two.
The Cowboys' personnel losses are a big factor, as is the fact that this one is being played in the desert, but perhaps the biggest difference is based in Arizona's coaching changes.
Former West Virginia and Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez took over for the fired Mike Stoops in the offseason and brought his zone-read, air-raid attack with him to Tucson.
The offensive production for the Wildcats was instantaneous in their Week One victory, as they posted 624 yards of offense on Toledo. However, the final score of 24-17 in overtime against the Rockets indicates that Rodriguez still has plenty of work to do to get his caliber of athletes into the program.
There is also much still to be learned about the Cowboys on the heels of their 84-0 demolition of hapless Savannah State. Here is a list of five things to keep an eye on in Saturday's matchup:
1. Oklahoma State's run defense
One of the keys to any Rich Rodriguez offense is getting the quarterback involved in the running game. Last season, Arizona had one of the worst rushing attacks in America but quarterback Matt Scott is custom made for Rodriguez's approach. He had 85 yards rushing in the season opener, in addition to 387 passing yards. Wildcat running back Ka'Deem Carey had 147 yards and a touchdown on 7.4 yards per carry. OSU should experience far greater success against the run than Toledo because of a vast talent differential, highlighted by newcomer Calvin Barnett at defensive tackle. OSU has one of the Big 12's best secondaries and arguably the top cornerback tandem in the NCAA with Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert. It will be a great advantage for the Cowboys if the front seven is able eliminate the run threat and force Arizona into a one-dimensional attack, just as they did in Stillwater last season.
2. Wes Lunt's first road test
Freshman quarterback Wes Lunt's debut was brief but impressive against Savannah State last Saturday. The Rochester, Ill., product has yet to throw an incomplete pass in his college career after going 11-for-11 for 129 yards but he has yet to be tested. Lunt is constantly praised for his composure and maturity in practice and that will be put to the test in Tucson. Lunt will be glad to have Tracy Moore back in the fold and the Cowboys' receiver-by-committee approach needs to produce to support the young signal caller. The key for Lunt will be to avoid costly mistakes and not force the issue. If passing miscues are avoided, OSU has far more talent than Arizona that should win out.
3. Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith vs. Arizona's front seven
Everything that was just said about Lunt is made a lot easier if OSU's dynamic running back duo of Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith can impose their will on the ground. The two backs combined to score five touchdowns on just 11 carries against Savannah State and OSU's easiest wins last season came when these two dominated and created a balanced attack, including a combined 200 yards and three scores in a rout of Zona last year. Arizona has an undersized defensive line that should work in OSU's favor behind the always-steady Joe Wickline o-line. It's unlikely the Cowboy running game will be able to replicate the nine-touchdowns it scored last Saturday but an effective, methodical attack can suck the air out of an opponent, make things easier on Lunt and keep the Arizona offense on the sideline.
4. Win the first half
Both of Oklahoma State's lopsided wins against Arizona the past two seasons have been spurred by dominating first-half performances. The Cowboys outscored the Wildcats 44-7 combined in the first half of the Alamo Bowl and last year's meeting in Stillwater. One of the fastest ways to take the home crowd out of the game and deject the Wildcats would be for the Cowboys to accomplish this feat once again. It is especially important for the Pokes to have early success with a true freshman at quarterback and an expected reliance on the ground game. The Pokes are 10-point favorites against UA, if they are able to reach that margin or better by halftime it could be a sign of smooth sailing for the Cowboys. If Arizona is allowed to hang around or even lead by the half, things could get interesting.
5. Asserting superiority
Oklahoma State enters the game as the defending Big 12 champions and in its last visit to the desert it came away with a thrilling victory against Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, not to mention two lopsided wins against UA the past two years. OSU needs to come in with an edge, an air of superiority, to stave off any potential road-game jitters. The Wildcats might well be a Pac-12 opponent, but the Pokes have strong advantages in size, speed and depth. The talent the Cowboys possess coupled with their success in recent years should allow them to march into Tucson and dictate the game from the start. If the Cowboys punch Arizona in the mouth early, OSU could handle the rebuilding ‘Cats with relative ease.
Prediction: Oklahoma State has better athletes than Arizona and has its offensive system firmly in place, while the Wildcats are still in the learning stages with Rich Rod at the helm. Even though it will be Lunt's first road start, OSU should be able to control the game on the ground if the aerial attack struggles. The Cowboys also might put up more points than most are anticipating, so long as they avoid turnovers, against an overmatched UA defense that lacks the personnel to compete with OSU's high-octane offense.
Oklahoma State 42, Arizona 21