September 24, 2009

Running on Empty? OSU addresses ground game issues

Oklahoma State football is known for its great tradition of tailbacks.

You know the big names of Sanders and Thomas. But in recent years, OSU has produced a bevy of high-quality runners, from Vernand Morency and Tatum Bell to Dantrell Savage and Kendall Hunter.

And over the years, 100-yard rushing performances have become the norm in Stillwater. Until 2009, anyway. For whatever reason, the rushing game that once resembled whitewater rapids now looks more like a river that needs a good mowin'.

Three games, zero 100-yard games. The closest to the century mark is the 82 yards Beau Johnson got against Houston last week. But this isn't horseshoes or hand grenades and it's no surprise the Cowboy offense has sputtered worse than a 1985 Yugo when you consider the lack of production in the run game. So far this season, the Cowboys have "amassed" 490 yards on the ground.

With Big 12 play just around the corner in two weeks, is this something to be concerned about heading into the meat of the schedule?

"I am not as concerned with the running game at this point," said head coach Mike Gundy. "We have two new guards playing and we are bringing those guys along each week. The guys playing tailback gave us some good touch yards, but when Kendall Hunter is in there and breaks a 60-yarder it pushes up the yards per carry average up a little bit. We are thrilled with the guys we have in there, but it is a little different when Kendall is in there obviously, he is an All-American."

In defense of the running game, Hunter has been limited due to injury. And he doesn't have the typical numbers fans have come to expect, either. In two games, Hunter has netted 104 yards rushing - a 3.2 yards per carry average - and one touchdown. In three games apiece, Keith Toston has put up 196 yards (5.0 ypc) and a score while Beau Johnson has gained 117 yards (5.3 ypc) and two TDs.

So what's been the issue? Toston attempted to answer that question this week.

"There have been plays where I've made the wrong cut and didn't get in the hole quick enough and it closed on me," Toston said. "There have been plays where the guard or tackle might not pull fast enough and there have been plays when we've actually broke and the receiver might have missed the block downfield. It's pretty much everything, but we're addressing it and continuing to get better."

So it's the fault of the offensive line? That's a new development, as the offensive line has been fairly stout in recent seasons. While pointing the finger probably wasn't how Toston was meaning to come across, the big uglies up front know their role in the offense and have said in the past that skill player stats are seen as achievements - especially with the run game. Andrew Lewis admits issues with the line have played a part in the lessened ground attack.

"It's our offensive line's job to have a running back go over 100 yards rushing," Lewis said. "We do take that personally. We want to keep on grinding."

So what can be done to right the ship this weekend against Grambling and during a bye in the schedule next week?

"I think it comes back down to communication," Lewis said. "Everybody's got to be on the same page. On the offensive line, when I make a point, everybody has got to know what they are doing. We have to have everybody blocked up."

And if that happens, the stable of runners know what they have to do to get back on track, something which Toston says will happen.

"There's no doubt in my mind," he said. "We're just missing it barely. When we break down the tape, we can see that it's little things that are costing us our big plays. With the guys we have on this team, we could have a breakout game at any time and I think we'll be okay."

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