The 2016 season has thus far proven to be quite the roller coaster for Oklahoma State, and the game against Baylor last Saturday was no different. When the clock hit 0:00 in Waco, the Cowboys had lost 35-24 despite having controlled the game by dominating time of possession, running the ball consistently and effectively, and limiting Baylor’s own potent rushing attack to less than half their season average.
How do you lose a game like that? Turning the ball over four times, ending two drives inside your opponent’s five yard line with zero points to show for it, and repeatedly giving up big plays on defense will do it. It’s an insanely difficult way to lose a game and it has left most Cowboy fans (not to mention the head coach) with a lingering frustration. Just as he did after the Central Michigan debacle, Mike Gundy is charged with leading the team to turn the page and move on to preparing for Texas. But is moving on to Texas going to look a lot like going back to Baylor?
Much to the dismay of Longhorn fans, these two programs have been going in opposite directions over the last several years as the self-anointed Bell Cow of the Big 12 became a dumpster fire and Baylor arose as a legitimate national title threat. Every year, we kept expecting Texas to return to prominence and Baylor to return to being Baylor, but it just didn’t happen. As a result, there’s now a drastic difference in the default perception of the two programs around Big 12 country (even if the national media is determined to proclaim Texas is back every time they win a game).
The feeling going into a game against Baylor is that you’re about to see a high-flying offense that scores a ton of points, operates at lightning speed, is incredibly balanced, and is almost impossible to stop. We’re talking about one of the most prolific offenses in the entire country. The feeling going into a game against Texas, at least of late, may involve a healthy concern over the fact that, even at their worst, the Longhorns have always had athletes, and its certainly within the realm of possibility to lose, but the feeling just isn’t the same. This season, maybe the feeling should be exactly the same.
Here’s a statistical comparison of Baylor and Texas through each team’s first three games of the season.
Eerily similar, no? Everyone knew when Texas hired Sterlin Gilbert, a product of the Art Briles coaching tree, he was going to incorporate a fast-tempo, spread offense similar to what Briles brought to Baylor. What no one knew was how quickly he could essentially duplicate the results of the Baylor offense. It’s looking a lot like the answer is pretty quickly, thanks in part to the aligning of the stars with the coinciding arrival of freshman quarterback Shane Buechele.
Now, no two teams are exactly the same, and there are certainly differences to point out between the Bears and the Longhorns. For instance, Baylor has managed 34 more rushing yards per game and 57 more total yards per game. That’s definitely nothing to scoff at. But the offensive numbers are much closer than most people would have assumed. And the counter to Baylor having marginally better numbers than the Longhorns is the undeniable fact that Texas has faced much better competition. You may not be a believer in Notre Dame (I’m decidedly not), and you may know Cal has been terrible against the run, but is anyone really lining up to argue that Notre Dame, UTEP, and Cal is NOT a far superior schedule to Northwestern State, SMU, and Rice? I didn’t think so.
What does all of this really mean for Oklahoma State? Mostly, it means the Cowboys may be in for a very similar game this Saturday to the one they endured last Saturday, which is good and bad. It’s good because OSU had every opportunity a team could realistically hope to have to win that game. It’s bad because, at the end of the day, it was unable to take advantage of those opportunities and some of the reasons why could absolutely show up again in Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday.
The fumbles are what they are. Somewhat under OSU’s control and somewhat dependent upon individual plays made by individual defenders, at the very least the fumbles are not reliably repeatable. What very well may be reliably repeatable are the big plays Baylor was able to produce in the passing game against the OSU defense. Which is not a surprising concept for anyone who has watched the Cowboys attempt to defend the pass this season.
The perception of this Texas offense is that, even with the emergence of Buechele, its success is predicated on the running game, and for good reason. Texas has a bevvy of Bevo-sized ball carriers who can and regularly do absolutely punish defensive fronts. Even though Baylor is often seen as a high-flying, air-it-out offense, the truth is that their game plan is also centered on running the football, as you can see from the fact that they came into the OSU game averaging more rushing yards than passing yards on the season (which is not an anomaly). Baylor uses a dynamic running game and spacing to create big opportunities in the passing game. So far this season, that’s exactly what Texas has been doing.
While the Longhorns haven’t quite achieved Baylor’s just absurd level of offensive balance, they absolutely have been able to run the ball and throw the ball effectively over the course of the first three games and do sport an offensive balance that most teams would die to have (OSU included). And, again, the Longhorns have done this against far better competition coming in than Baylor had through its non-conference slate.
Here’s the good news. Oklahoma State was very effective in limiting the Baylor running game. Part of that was the Pokes’ ability to play keep away by possessing the ball a ridiculous 41:27. They did so, largely, by running the ball to the tune of what feels like a decade-high 213 yards and being very good at converting on third down. And that time of possession did have an impact. Baylor came into the OSU game averaging over 50 rushing attempts per game. Against the Cowboys, they ran the ball 37 times. Obviously, when you give a team 13+ fewer carries, you’re likely to hold them to fewer rushing yards, but you also keep them from wearing down your defensive front. Yes, the Cowboy front held Baylor to 3.7 yards per carry, almost two full yards short of their season average of 5.6. They played a great game and more than did their part to win the game. However, there’s a chance that average may have gone up late in the game if the Cowboy defense was forced to defend 50+ running plays. So, by controlling the game through possessing the ball and limiting Baylor’s possessions and being tough against the run when Baylor did run the ball, the Pokes were able to put the clamps on what was a scary good rushing attack coming in.
So let’s just do that, right? That may very well be the game plan again versus Texas, and it may very well work. Baylor is bad against the run. SMU and Rice exposed this before the Cowboys ever went to Waco. The coaching staff was confident the Cowboys could run the ball against the Bears even though they hadn’t produced a productive running game in over two years. And they were right. But can they run the ball as effectively against Texas? Effectively enough to execute a similar game plan and win? Again, the stats say the Longhorns are remarkably similar to the Bears. Baylor came into the OSU game allowing 152.3 rushing yards per game. Texas comes in allowing 150.7 rushing yards per game. Texas is also allowing a higher third down conversion rate (37%) than Baylor was allowing coming in (24%).
The caveat here is that Texas, again, has faced better offenses, so maybe their run defense is considerably better than Baylor’s. Maybe. But so far this season, Northwestern State, SMU, and Rice have actually rushed for more yards per game than Notre Dame, UTEP, and Cal, which I found interesting and somewhat encouraging. It’s possible Baylor has actually faced teams that run the ball better than Texas’ opponents even though they’re clearly less talented overall. So maybe Baylor’s run defense and Texas’ run defense are more similar than we might assume. Which means the Cowboys could quite possibly execute a similar game plan to the one that put them in position to beat Baylor on the road last week.
The bad news? Baylor countered the Cowboy game plan by making big play after big play in the passing game, and it appears Texas is capable of doing the same thing. Baylor came into the OSU game averaging 6.9 yards per passing attempt. Against OSU, that number doubled to a backbreaking 13.8. Texas comes into Stillwater averaging 8.4 yards per passing attempt. If that average goes up to anything close to what Baylor averaged against the Cowboys, it could be a long day. Let’s all just take a moment and be glad Ish Zamora isn’t walking through that door for the Longhorns. I know all the dogs in Austin are thankful for that.
If this season has taught us anything, it’s that we have absolutely no clue what to expect and we should be prepared for just about anything. But the statistics suggest that the Cowboys may be facing off against a Texas team that operates a lot like Baylor. That’s good news and bad news. At the end of the day, this game could very well come down to third downs, turnovers, and big plays. Oklahoma State was on the losing end of two of those three in Waco. If the Cowboys can come out on top in those areas this Saturday, they could very well upend the Horns in Stillwater for the first time in almost 20 years.