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Running On Fumes: OSU Ground Game Hindering Offense

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STILLWATER, Oklahoma -

Oklahoma State's loss to West Virginia hurts but it certainly did not mark the end of the Cowboys' Big 12 title chances.

Reason being, of the long list of grievances committed by the Pokes in Morgantown, none of them are beyond correction.

Perhaps the most alarming of the struggles against WVU was the sheer volume of them. Oklahoma State blasted its way into the hierarchy of college football based largely on its explosive passing game, consistent rushing attack, stout offensive line and a top-tier kicking game.

In a year where the Cowboys' defense has proven to be very much improved, all of the aforementioned facets of the Pokes' usually-potent arsenal were in disarray against a below-average Mountaineer squad.

And perhaps the most surprising being the disappearing act pulled by their usually-capable run game.

The lack of consistency on the ground drew the ire of coach Mike Gundy during his Monday press conference, previewing his Pokes' upcoming tilt with defending Big 12 champion Kansas State.

"We've got to have a balance on the offense," Gundy said. "It's hard to throw the ball for a bunch of yards and not rush for any at all. We need to have a balanced attack in our system to be effective offensively and score some points. It's really pretty simple.

Gundy clearly was indicating that when there is a problem in even the smallest part of the Cowboys' offensive engine, the whole vehicle shuts down. And not much is running efficiently for the offense ... literally.

While this issue is simple to identify, it's difficult to overcome.

The lack of execution has many questioning first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. His play calling against West Virginia drew an onslaught of criticism on social media throughout the game, including many calling out his insistence to stick with the run game as, ‘foolish,' ‘hard headed' and ‘counterproductive.'

But, outside of the questionable timing of some run calls, a lot of the problems OSU encountered on the ground were out of his control. It's up to the offensive line to execute the blocks and for the running backs to hit the holes at full speed and without hesitation.

Neither happened against WVU.

The Cowboys ran for just 111 yards on 40 carries to the tune of 2.8 yards per carry. OSU also failed to score a touchdown on the ground.

And, if you take away Desmond Roland's 22-yard scamper and Walsh's 14-yarder, the yard-per-carry average drops to an embarrassing 1.9. This is unacceptable for a unit that prides itself on its physicality.

The line has been significantly less reliable than in years past under Joe Wickline. This is largely because a rash of injuries has resulted in a mix-and-match effort across the line for a unit that was already down on talent after losing three starters from 2012. The preseason injury to projected-starting left tackle Devin Davis was a significant blow, but Wickline's troops have yet to overcome as they have in other seasons, and this was glaring against the Mountaineers.

The schemes are there, the execution isn't.

"We don't ever really panic; we just know we have to come out and get better," offensive lineman Brandon Webb said. "We have to adjust to a scheme and get it down to help our younger guys come along faster because we need them. We're not really an individual in there. If someone makes a bust then it is the whole offensive line's fault. We have to take responsibility as a whole and try to get better."

And the line must get better and get more consistency out of the youngsters quickly. The line has allowed adequate time in the passing game but the run blocking has been flat-out bad. It failed to get a push at the line of scrimmage against low-end opponents like UTSA and Lamar, which many attributed to a lack of interest but it had the potential of foreshadowing a much larger problem — a lack of talent and experience.

The latter presented itself as the likely answer against the Mountaineers, which will be problematic if the unit is unable to get healthy quickly.

West Virginia's defense was among the nation's worst a season ago but looked like the Steel Curtain against the Pokes. The offensive line got no push and starting tailback Jeremy Smith look timid and helpless, rushing 15 times for just one yard.

Whenever OSU needed yards in important situations, it was unable to get them. This is not the Cowboy run game of the past several seasons where Dantrell Savage, Keith Toston, Kendall Hunter and Joseph Randle were routinely up to the task behind road-grading lines.

Oklahoma State did have some modest success with Walsh running in read-option situations and with reserve running back Roland's more slash-oriented style, but everything Smith was involved in got completely shut down.

And the lack of a run game can have disastrous results on an offense, even if it does possess a dynamic receiving corps and capable quarterback. Just look at the New York Giants.

There were noticeable side effects of this in Morgantown. Walsh does not have Brandon Weeden's arm; he needs a capable rushing threat to keep defenses from dropping back and swarming passing lanes because he doesn't possess the arm strength to beat defenses over the top. This was seen clearly against West Virginia when a streaking Tracy Moore would have scored easily after finding himself wide open in the center of the field, but Walsh's throw was roughly 10 yards too short and was batted down. The possession ended with a punt, not a big-play touchdown.

The inability to establish the deep ball resulted in an over-reliance on shallow slants, bubble screens, hitches and quick outs, which severely limited the offense's explosive potential. It resulted in errant throws, interceptions and drops, the drops likely stemming from nerves because of numerous defenders in close quarters.

This all comes back to the run blocking and the tailback's abilities to make plays.

Smith has proven himself capable in earlier stages of his career, but he needs to be more assertive as a senior. He has spent too many of his carries this season bouncing to the outside or dancing behind the line of scrimmage. His strength has always been based in, well, his strength. He is a bigger back who is at his most dangerous hitting the hole instantly and attacking the second level head on.

OSU does have its Randle-esque option in Roland, who has flashed his talent for big plays but seems to struggle with decision making. Walsh brings a dynamic Zac Robinson-type element to the QB position, as well. Long story short, the run game is far from hopeless but, after a third of the season has already passed, it needs to get on track and fast if the Pokes plan to make a push for the Big 12 crown.

If Smith can re-establish himself and the line can mesh and start to get a few more veterans back in the lineup, it is likely some of the problems in the passing game remedy themselves as a result. As Gundy implied, as soon as one glaring problem gets fixed, the rest of the offense should begin running smoothly once again.

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