OSU hopes faster start equals Big 12 title

Tuesday, August 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) _ For offensive firepower, it doesn't get much better than Oklahoma State's trio of Josh Fields, Tatum Bell and Rashaun Woods.

Those three make the Cowboys the only Big 12 team to return a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard runner and a 1,000-yard receiver. In 2002, they helped Oklahoma State post just its second winning season in 14 years.

Stillwater hasn't seen a set of offensive stars this formidable since Barry Sanders, Hart Lee Dykes and Cale Gundy were wearing hunting-cap orange.

``Offensively, we're not answering lots of questions,'' coach Les Miles said. ``We kind of know who the main playmakers will be.''

Having that kind of talent at the skill positions has heightened the expectations at a place that traditionally plays second-fiddle to in-state rival Oklahoma.

Oklahoma State won six of its last seven games last season, including a second straight upset over the Sooners and a victory over Southern Mississippi in the Houston Bowl, to finish 8-5. The Cowboys were 5-3 in the Big 12, falling a victory short of playing in the league championship game for the first time.

Miles thinks his team can accomplish more this season.

``Guys on this team are confident,'' he said.'' There will be no team we'll line up against that we don't feel like we have a chance against.''

Woods set a Big 12 record with 107 receptions last season and led the league in with 1,695 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Fields shattered school season records for completions (226), attempts (408), yards (3,145) and touchdowns (31).

But it was the late-season emergence of Bell, who started nine games and rushed for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns, that forced defenses to rethink the way they played the Cowboys. A maturing offensive line with three returning starters should be able to keep the unit churning along.

``Everything seems to be falling in place,'' Bell said. ``Once your confidence gets going, it's almost like you can't be stopped.''

Thing is, Oklahoma State had problems stopping other offenses _ and that was with eventual NFL first-round draft pick Kevin Williams clogging up things on the line.

The Cowboys must replace the interior of their defensive line and need drastic improvement from a pass defense that was ranked 100th in the nation.

The answer to the first problem could come from a trio of 300-pounders: junior college transfer Efe Mowarin and freshmen Xavier Lawson-Kennedy and Brad Girtman. They also could be the answer to the second problem, too, considering Oklahoma State didn't have much of a pass rush last season (28 sacks in 13 games).

Oklahoma State's secondary should be much better this season after several freshmen, including cornerback Vernon Grant, were forced into action last year. Those rough times could pay off this year.

``I don't think they'll take a back seat to anyone,'' Miles said. ``Last year and lining up against our offense (in practice) gives them some confidence.''

Miles hopes his defense has solved its problems by the season-opener at Nebraska on Aug. 30. The Cowboys haven't won in Lincoln since 1960, but the Cornhuskers are coming off a down year. The time might be right to end that skid and to finally start a season on a good note.

``That's something we've never really done around here _ start strong,'' Fields said. ``I wouldn't say we've definitely turned the corner yet. But we're right on the corner.''