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10 Thoughts on Oklahoma State’s 27-13 Season-Opening Victory against Central Arkansas

On quarterbacks, running struggles and more.

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[Devin Wilber/PFB]

BOX SCORE

STILLWATER — It wasn’t pretty, but I imagine after last season, the Cowboys are alright with winning ugly as opposed to the alternative.

Oklahoma State trudged to a 27-13 win against Central Arkansas on Saturday night in Boone Pickens Stadium. Things looked dicey in the third quarter, but OSU was able to build a 20-point lead late and start the season 1-0. Here are 10 thoughts on OSU’s season opener.

1. Gunnar Gundy QB1?

The battle to become Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback was supposed to be between Garret Rangel and Alan Bowman.

Twitter moaned when Gunnar Gundy entered a one-score game against an FCS foe, but the Stillwater High product delivered even with that pressure on top of the pressure he already plays with being the coach’s kid.

In eight combined drives, Rangel and Bowman delivered the Cowboys 13 points. Gunnar put up 14 points in his first three drives.

Gunnar ended up playing the final four drives of the game. After a three-and-out to start, he led back-to-back touchdown drives then kneeled the game out. He finished 7-for-9 for 106 yards. He also ran for 20 yards. The Cowboys’ running game got going when Gunnar was in — which could be coincidental and certainly helped.

This quarterback battle probably isn’t going to be decided on a 27-13 win against an FCS team, but if it was, Gunnar would be the Cowboys’ quarterback.

The public sample size (i.e. not practice performance) is small — too small to make any sweeping conclusions. But Gunnar showed the fanbase Saturday that he at least belongs in the discussion. He isn’t someone to be thrown in at the end after talking about Bowman and Rangel.

2. But What About the Rangel and Bowman

Well, now it’s easier to see why Mike Gundy said he couldn’t separate the quarterbacks, but not necessarily in the way I expected.

Rangel and Bowman (in that order) each played four possessions Saturday, though neither set the world ablaze.

Rangel: 10-for-15, 118 yards, one touchdown, one interception, 18 rushing yards, 7 points
Bowman: 13-for-24, 80 yards, -2 rushing yards, 6 points

Bowman had the misfortunes of a few dropped passes that likely would’ve been his passing yardage total near Rangel’s. It was a fairly even performance. Neither grabbed the job by the horns, but both were serviceable — especially considering a lack of run support when both were in the game.

It looks like this quarterback battle (with Gunnar firmly in it) will continue to the deserts of Tempe. That might be a maddening proposition after watching the three quarters of struggle that was this game, but if you put all the quarterbacks together, OSU was 30-for-48 (63%) for 304 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That looks a lot better than all the segmented stat lines of the three.

3. The 6.5 Win Total Seems More Realistic Now

When Las Vegas tabbed the Pokes at 6.5 wins, people who have followed Oklahoma State football under Mike Gundy scoffed.

“With this schedule, you think OSU is going to fight for bowl eligibility?” I predicted the Pokes at nine wins. I get it. But the Cowboys were just in a one-score game in the second half against an FCS team. Not to say that this is the time to hit the panic button (though, in that third quarter it felt like it), but this game was a bit of a reality check that OSU is in a spot that it hasn’t been in a ton as of late.

The offensive line questions (which we’ll get to) that have been there over the past few years are still here, and on top of that there is a three-way quarterback battle taking place, a new defensive scheme being implemented and a boatload of transfers getting comfortable on this new team.

I’m not ready to write off the 2023 OSU season after one game against Central Arkansas (especially considering the Cowboys pulled away a bit late), but this was a bit of a reality check after drinking every bit of orange Kool-Aid I could get my lips to this offseason.

4. Running Game Stunk … Until the Fourth Quarter

At halftime, it didn’t look like OSU’s rushing attack had gotten any better. In fact, it looked like it might’ve regressed some.

The Cowboys carried the ball 14 times for just 45 yards (3.2 YPC) in the first half. Rangel was the team’s leading rusher with 18 yards. No OSU tailback had cracked double digits.

But the tide started to change in the fourth quarter, where the Cowboys carried the ball 14 times for 97 yards (6.7 YPC).

I struggle to say whether the running game was just that bad in the first half or whether it was given the opportunity to get off the ground.

Before the fourth quarter, Ollie Gordon had two carries — two. That pair of totes gave Gordon just 7 yards. He carried the ball five times in the fourth quarter, running for 37 yards. Those five fourth-quarter carries included a 17-yard run, a 15-yard run, another ridiculous hurdle and a touchdown.

“My first hurdle back in like eighth grade — seventh grade, eighth grade,” Gordon said. “Whenever you’re big, normally DBs are gonna try and cut you. So in my head, once I get tackled like the first three or four times, get them to think I’m just gonna keep letting them tackle me, then I’m like, ‘OK, I’m gonna jump over them.’ At worst, I get flipped.”

On the whole, the trio of Gordon, Elijah Collins and Jaden Nixon had 21 carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns. That’s 5.3 yards per carry, which sure looks a lot better than 3.2.

5. An Overall Solid Start to the Bryan Nardo Defense

Central Arkansas drove straight down the field on its opening possession.

The Bears scored on back-to-back plays that both got called back for penalties. Eventually UCA settled for a field goal that was blocked. It felt like survival for the Pokes. But after giving up 59 yards on that first drive, Nardo’s bunch gave up just 67 yards for the remainder of the first half.

Gundy and Co. weren’t stoked about the tackling, and the Bears did make some plays in the second half to put some points on the board. But overall, you’ll take holding a team to 13 points, no matter if that’s an FCS team or otherwise.

6. Offensive Line Still a Question Mark

Man, this would be a lot easier for the Cowboys had the OSU offensive line came out and buried an FCS foe, but that just wasn’t the case Saturday.

The OSU running backs showed that when lanes were there, they could exploit them. But there just weren’t a ton of lanes for three quarters.

OSU had a starting group of Cole Birmingham (LT), Jason Brooks Jr. (LG), Joe Michalski (C), Taylor Miterko (RG) and Jake Springfield (RT).

The Cowboys were without Preston Wilson, the presumed starting right guard, for a non-football-related reason. Here is what Gundy said about it postgame:

“Well, it’s just between him and me, but he was not available for the game,” Gundy said. “He’s not in any legal trouble. Y’all don’t need to go wasting your time doing all that. I’ll save y’all a lot of work.”

Then Jake Springfield exited in the first half with an apparent lower-body injury — pushing Texas State transfer Dalton Cooper into action. Miterko and Cooper are good depth to have, but it is like there is some sort of curse in the Cowboys’ O-line room.

If OSU can figure it out up front and at quarterback, it feels like the rest of it is ready to go, but those are obviously two incredibly important position groups. It would be easy to say that this offensive line could grow throughout the year, but after a few years of the offensive line starting out shaky and finishing shaky, it’s tough to be overly confident in things taking a huge step forward over the next 11 games.

7. Staff Gets Creative with Presley

Brennan Presley was a bright spot in the Cowboys’ anemic first-half offense.

Presley scored the half’s only touchdown, going in motion, running around Garret Rangel before flaring out, catching a pass, making a few guys miss and touching paydirt.

He went through a similar bit of motion in the second quarter, but he took a handoff out of the backfield and ran 5 yards.

With dynamic as Presley is with the ball in his hands, it was fun to see Dunn and Co. get him the ball in creative ways.

Presley finished the night with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. He also had the one 5-yard carry, and two kick returns for 25 yards.

Sign me up for all the Presley motion and creative ways to get him the rock.

8. Korie Black Had Himself a Day

If a corner is playing well, sometimes he can get lost in the box score.

A corner playing well means he probably isn’t getting thrown at a ton, which was the case for Korie Black on Saturday. His three tackles and one pass breakup might not seem all that extraordinary, but he went above normal cornerback duties.

In the first quarter, he blocked a field goal. In the second quarter, he forced a fumble. Then in the third, he blocked another kick. For those keeping track at home, Black has blocked 100% of the field goals attempted against Oklahoma State this season.

9. Stribling Hits the Ground Running

In his first quarter as a Cowboy, De’Zhaun Stribling caught three of his four targets and had 52 yards.

He instantly looked like that go-to Z receiver — like Tay Martin or Tylan Wallace before him. That’s something OSU didn’t exactly have last season with all the injuries and a young group, but historically Gundy’s offenses have been at their best when they had that guy.

If Presley and Stribling can lead the way, guys like Jaden Bray, Talyn Shettron, Blaine Green and Rashod Owens are outstanding complimentary pieces.

10. Back At It

That football game, like many from last season, won’t end up in some football museum, but man it’s just great to have college football back.

Games Thursday, games Friday, the TCU-Colorado game this morning, it’s been great to have the sport back, and it’s great to have it back in Stillwater. Maybe it was the way last season ended (or maybe it was the fact that I got married this offseason), but this offseason has seemed longer than normal.

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