For a period it appeared as though Oklahoma State Head Coach Mike Gundy had the Cowboys in position to overcome their long time in-state rival and superior, Oklahoma, and fill the gap left by Texas' precipitous collapse following their 2009 championship appearance.
Despite regularly losing recruiting battles with the Big 12's two superpowers, the Cowboys seized the opportunity to emerge in the conference thanks to two key hires: DC Bill Young in 2009 and OC Dana Holgorsen in 2010.
Young quickly elevated the quality of the OSU defense and had them ranked in Defensive S&P's top 15 every season, a standing that lasted even through the first year after he left before cratering to 58th in 2014.
Meanwhile Holgorsen brought the modern, RPO-heavy Air Raid to Oklahoma State which came to define their attack even though he left after one year to take over at West Virginia.
But all of their coaching hires and adoption of schematic innovations really just served to allow them to accomplish two traditionalist aims; running the ball and playing defense.
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Now attrition is taking hold and Gundy's ability to provide vision and oversight for his program is really facing a stiff test because, although OU and Texas are still lagging, TCU and Baylor have done a better job of filling the power vacuum and now sit in pole position.
Longtime offensive line coach Joe Wickline, a coach highly celebrated for his ability to craft excellent zone-blocking lines and spread running schemes was poached by Texas. Bill Young was allegedly fired due Gundy's fear that he was facing a likely decline as a man in his 60's while Gundy has also had to cycle through two post-Dana Holgorsen OCs.
After 2014's disappointing results, Gundy had to hire several new coaches to re-stock his staff and also added two more to serve as consultants and help do evaluations and build game plans.
Of particular interest is the hiring of OL coach Greg Adkins of the Buffalo Bills (formerly of Syracuse) and TE/FB coach Jason McEndoo of Montana State, two coaches who loved to pound the ball with power in their previous stops. McEndoo in particular was a revelatory hire as his Montana offense was a "12 personnel up-tempo spread" which blurred the lines between the pro-style and spread approach as it regularly combined double tight end personnel with shogtun and pistol alignments and option schemes.
This would be a big departure from the spread styles that brought Oklahoma State to the top of the Big 12 at the turn of the decade.
Although they were already a spread team before 2010, when Dana Holgorsen brought "basketball on grass" to the Big 12 in 2010 and the quarterback position was transformed to resemble a point guard making quick, rehearsed decisions set up by spacing out the defense.
Another innovation that took place at this time was the invention of the Diamond formation, and arguably more importantly, the Spread-I offense. Holgorsen's interest in expanding the importance of the run game within the Air Raid offense molded well with Oklahoma State's deep stable of good running backs and OL coach Joe Wickline's excellence in teaching the inside zone run game.
The two-back run game became the high screen to basketball on grass, allowing the offense to present horrifying conflicts for defenders.
With Justin Blackmon necessitating safety help on the outside and OSU's two-back, zone running game necessitating extra numbers up front there was simply no right answer for defenses. The result was that they were just about always wrong and Blackmon posted the following numbers in his 2010 and 2011 campaigns:
2010: 111 catches, 1782 yards, 20 touchdowns
2011: 121 catches, 1522 yards, 18 touchdowns
This approach gradually faded in effectiveness and there's some chicken/egg dynamics in determining whether this was because they finally no longer had a Dez Bryant or Justin Blackmon outside, because the OL was less effective, or because the tailbacks slipped in explosiveness.
Whether Wickline was in decline or the run game talent at OSU was simply down in 2013 they no longer have their inside zone master to help shape the spread run game that provided their QBs with such excellent play-action opportunities in past days.
Creating favorable match-ups for their receivers has to be a priority for the Cowboys heading into 2015 and beyond as they build their offense around true sophomore QB Mason Rudolph who came alive at the end of 2014.
Taking over in the 'Pokes final three games, the "reindeer" threw 86 passes for 853 yards, good for 9.9 yards per attempt, connected on six touchdown passes and misconnected on four interceptions. His top three receivers from 2014 all return suggesting an obvious point of emphasis for OSU on offense.
Several young OL that were broken in during a painful 2014 season return while adding UAB left tackle Victor Salako setting up a potential OL of:
Left Tackle: Victor Salako: 6'6" 330. Redshirt junior.
Left Guard: Michael Wilson: 6'6" 305. Redshirt junior.
Center: Paul Lewis: 6'3" 295. Redshirt junior.
Right Guard: Jesse Robinson: 6'6" 310. Redshirt sophomore.
Right Tackle: Zachary Crabtree: 6'7" 305. Redshirt sophomore.
The Cowboys add bruising FB/TE Jeremy Seaton to that formula and have other young players like Blake Jarwin coming up at the position. The timing is perfect for Gundy to re-shape the offensive identity to set up a big run in 2016 with a veteran line and quarterback who'll already have a year together within the new system.
The question is what exactly that new system will look like. After years of relying on zone blocking in conjunction with the Air Raid passing attack, are the Cowboys now poised to break ground once again with an up-tempo, power spread?
The Power spread?
The nature of the spread offense is to isolate defenders in space and attack whichever defender is out-leveraged with someone fast. Originally that focused mostly on the passing game with the run game as a constraint if the defense spread too wide and left themselves outnumbered up front.
Oklahoma State's spread-I looked to add the component of attacking the interior of the defense with size and versatility in the running game but with the main overall purpose of still setting up fast people to out-leverage opponents.
The Power run offense is a different beast than the spread and power generally hasn't been combined much with spread offenses save for the 3rd generation "smashmouth spread" systems that use the QB as a runner or with the RPO-heavy Baylor and West Virginia attacks.
The power run is about imposing your will up front with a scheme that will drive defenders off the ball and put hats on hats so that the running back is generally always running for a gain, potentially a big one if he can juke a safety or the defense wears out and huge holes appear.
It makes for a ball-control run game that is often accompanied by a deep strike passing game off play-action. Air Raid passing attacks and spread formations don't typically coincide with the power philosophy since the aim is to ensure that the offense has enough big blockers up front to account for defenders. Option offenses get around this difficulty with QB option or RPOs that allow them to carefully control and punish the extra defenders who could muck up the works by attacking the line of scrimmage.
The Montana State offense that McEndoo comes from rarely used spread formations and instead used an in-line TE, a winger/H-back player, and then shotgun or pistol alignments that allowed them to mix in option and QB run game all for the purpose of being able to run the dang ball anytime they pleased regardless of defensive response.
Adkins came from a background that also emphasized TE/H-back pro-style sets and used power amongst zone and other gap schemes to attack defenses.
There's no doubt that an effective power run game could set Rudolph and his receivers with favorable match-ups outside, but the question for Gundy and his staff is whether they want to control run defenders by simply bulldozing over them with double TE sets as McEndoo and Adkins have done at previous stops:
Or if they want to option those defenders off with spread tactics, as they've done for the last few years:
The former requires a high level of teaching for the pulling linemen and tight ends while the latter requires the QB and receivers work together to nail down their chemistry and reads, attempting to master both could be disastrous and result in ineffectiveness in either approach.
How they incorporate power is a big decision for Oklahoma State as it will determine their identity, personnel-wise and whether they are able to build the kind of running game they had in their heyday and set up Rudolph for big numbers. It'll also require that either Adkins and McEndoo re-configure how they approach the scheme or OC Yurcich does.
If the Cowboys can integrate this identity into their existing spread-option system it would allow Rudolph to make quick reads and hit his speedy receivers in space while still bringing extra physicality against the defenders isolated in the middle of the field. They could also evolve to become more of a pro-style system that combines traditional power runs with a QB power-option package that features JW Walsh in a 4th phase unit.
If they struggle to discern how they want to integrate it and whether they want to evolve into a power spread or else go pro-style then all bets are off on whether the Rudolph era is one that puts OSU back in contention within the Big 12 or they find themselves marginalized by the rise of Baylor and TCU.