August 19, 2011
The least you should know about the 2011 Cowboys. Part of Big 12 Week.
• The circle of life. The Okie State offense was ravaged coming out of 2009, down a three-year starter at quarterback, a 1,200-yard rusher at tailback, and first-round draft picks at wide receiver and left tackle, leaving just three returning starters in their wake. Even with that cast on hand, the attack had imploded with a single touchdown in back-to-back losses to close the '09 season, convincing head coach Mike Gundy to hand over play-calling to a new offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen — who immediately turned one of the greenest lineups in the country into one of the most prolific: OSU finished 2010 as the No. 1 offense in the Big 12 in passing yards, pass efficiency, total yards and scoring. In all, it improved by 16 points and 153 yards per game over 2009, the most dramatic single-season leap in the country.
Going back to his "Air Raid" days at Texas Tech and his two-year stint at Houston, 2010 was Holgorsen's fourth consecutive season at the controls of one of the top two or three attacks in the country, with three different quarterbacks at three different schools. The man's got the touch, and he's currently applying it in West Virginia.
Holgorsen's replacement, longtime NFL position coach Todd Monken, vowed when he arrived in February he had no intention of screwing around with one of the most successful schemes in the country. But he also had to learn one of the most successful schemes in the country, which reportedly left 27-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden playing the teacher for most of the spring and summer. At best, that's a discouraging equation for growth; at worst, the new puppet master struggles to keep the strings from devolving into a tangled mess.
• Old Man on Campus. Weeden's numbers as a first-year starter speak for themselves, even more so because of their consistency: He delivered multiple touchdown passes in eleven different games, an efficiency rating above 150 in nine games and at least 350 yards passing in seven. More importantly, the Cowboys put at least 35 points on the board in ten different games en route to a school-record for wins (11), including 41 points in both losses. Individually, Weeden ranked among the top ten passers nationally in yards, touchdowns and completion percentage en route to a first-team All-Big 12 nod from league coaches. Et cetera.
His instant rapport with receiver Justin Blackmon was entirely unexpected and entirely lethal: The two hooked up for an NCAA-best 20 touchdowns and 19 completions covering at least 25 yards, with at least one 40-yard connection in 10 of the 12 games the Blackmon played. Regardless of the coordinator, there's no better pass-catch combo in America. And with all five starters back on a line that allowed fewer sacks than any other line in the Big 12, there may not be a better-protected passer, either.
• Sounds great! What's the catch? Regardless of the offense, there's still the defense, which not only failed to hold up its end in shootout losses against Nebraska and Oklahoma, but also managed to give up at least 28 points in five games the Cowboys won.
That's due in part to the relentless pace: The offense moved so quickly and with such success, the Cowboy D wound up on the field for more plays than any other defense in the country. But there's no precedent here for the kind of consistency necessary for a serious run at a conference championship in a league as top-heavy as the Big 12, and with five starters gone from an ordinary front seven, even less experience to suggest this will be the year they find it.
• Fashion break! In search of a new way to spend mega-booster T. Boone Pickens' largess, OSU quietly vowed in the spring to remake itself as "the Oregon of the Midwest": A traditional middleweight that announces its ambitions to move up in class by giving Nike designers free reign to bring its stale, predictable look into the 21st century and beyond. This is what they came up with:
The key innovation, as with Oregon, is the addition of a third primary color, gray, to the traditional orange and black, as well as the addition of two new helmet colors — gray and black — to the exclusively white lids the Cowboys have worn for the last 30 years. With three helmet colors (white, gray and black), four jersey colors (white, gray, black and orange) and four pants colors (white, gray, black and orange), OSU's options expand from roughly nine possible combinations on any given Saturday to at least 48 possible combinations. And the battle is already on to decide who gets to make the call.