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Three and Out: Oklahoma State Must Limit Mistakes Against South Alabama



The Cowboys travel to coastal Alabama this week to face a Sun Belt Conference team that has never finished the year with a winning record. South Alabama has only been an FBS program since 2012. If any team is aware of what can happen when you mess around with a lesser non-conference opponent, this group does. I don’t expect a Troy-like disaster.

So what could possibly be compelling about this game other than seeing how many different running backs get to play before halftime? Plenty. Oklahoma State housed Tulsa in its season opener but showed a couple small warts in the process. Now is the time to clear all that up before a real road test in Pittsburgh. Mostly, I want to see the Cowboys come out with the same killer instinct it started off in Week 1.

So, here are three numbers to watch as you tune in on Friday night.


Five times in the season opener, Tulsa converted a third down with 10 yards or more to go. It’s frustrating for a defense to lose ground after almost getting off the field. When you’re up 30-plus at home (or the same number in Mobile) it may go unnoticed. But when it happens in a closer game in Austin or Morgantown or against Oklahoma at home, it can be a back-breaker.

Numbers like this can falsely get tossed into the “bend-don’t-break” bin and ignored for defenses like Oklahoma State. That’s not true. While Oklahoma State — and any Big 12 defense for that matter — is going to give up some yards, the most effective teams are able to get off the field somewhat consistently on third down.

Here’s a look at the last five years and where OSU ranked in overall opponent’s third-down conversions.

Year Opp. 3rd-Down Conv. Rate Big 12 Rank Turnover Margin Big 12 Rank
2016 38.97% 4th 0.85 2nd
2015 41.18% 5th 1.00 1st
2014 40.78% 6th -0.62 8th
2013 31.44% 1st 1.15 1st
2012 36.28% 2nd 0.00 6th

That 2013 defense was the epitome of full stretching that proverbial rubber band without feeling that stinging snap. It gave up 432 yards of total offense per game — good for 86th nationally — but led the Big 12 and was 19th nationally averaging just 21.6 per game for the bad guys. A big part of that was takeaways but third downs were huge as well. As we see above, turnover margin has been pretty comparable the last few years other than the forgettable 2014 season but 2013’s third-down rate was by far the best.

It’s only been one game but Oklahoma State’s defense needs to get better at getting off the field on third downs. Maybe they didn’t expect Chad President to spring loose for 20-yard runs but we looked at defensive end as a huge strength for the Cowboys. I think it still is but I’d like to see more pressure on the quarterback on Friday night.


Speaking of turnovers, the Cowboys had two of those mishaps that could have easily been avoided. Mason Rudolph’s fumble was simply a result of trying to do too much. We saw something similar in the first quarter when he threw a risky pass to the left sideline (right in front of a defender) that Marcell Ateman snatched out of danger. If the DB was a second faster, he probably gets six going the other way.

Some of that aggressiveness comes with the territory when you’ve got a big-time gunslinger behind center and you don’t want to coach it out. You probably can’t at this point anyway. Rudolph’s been great for the most part and taking what the defense gives to him but you have those moments where even he shakes his head.

The other giveaway came on a head-scratching punt return attempt that left Oklahoma State’s offense on the sideline a little longer and seven points on Tulsa’s side of the scoreboard. Jalen McCleskey knows better according to Gundy and he should. He’s been featured on returns for three years now.

Do two turnovers in the first game of the season give me a huge cause for concern? No. But they were both the result of poor decision-making and had nothing to do with the strength of OSU’s opponent. Therefore they should be easily correctable and I’d like to see that moving forward. This is a top-10ish team and we should expect a near perfect performance this Friday night.


Oklahoma State has reached 300 yards rushing just thrice in the last five seasons. Once was against Iowa State in 2013, once against TCU last year and then last Thursday night. This type of balance on offense gives Mike Gundy the feels and the additional confidence he’ll need to keep that Arkansas waterfall flowing deep into December.

How well can that hold up? With the obvious talent OSU boasts in the backfield behind Justice Hill and the likelihood that OSU is up big late and Gundy wants to burn clock, anything less than 300 yards is a bit disappointing against South Alabama. Let’s see this offensive line dominate. Let’s see Justice on the bench by halftime. Let’s see Chuba go for 125 on six carries.

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