STILLWATER — It's pick your poison for Oklahoma State opponents.
Whenever the Cowboys' offense arrives in the red zone, opposing defenses must make a choice: Either stack the box to try to keep Kendall Hunter, the Big 12's leading rusher, out of the end zone or provide help on the outside where Justin Blackmon, the Big 12's leading receiver, is consistently winning one-on-one battles with cornerbacks.
OSU ranks No. 2 nationally in red zone scoring this season, having scored on 35 of 36 drives inside an opponents' 20-yard line (97 percent). The Cowboys have scored 25 touchdowns (69.44 touchdown percentage) and 10 field goals (27.78 field goal percentage).
The driving force behind the Pokes' red zone success has been their ability to run the ball. Hunter, Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith have proven to be solid short yardage runners, with 14 of the Pokes' 25 red zone scores coming on the ground.
"(The key) is the offensive line," quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "We run the ball a lot down there, even though the field is condensed they still make running lanes for Kendall. You have to run the football, which opens up the passing game."
With Hunter, Smith and Randle forcing teams to account for them, it often leaves Blackmon and Michael Harrison one-on-one on the outside. Blackmon has proved himself virtually unguardable on fade routes and Harrison has scored two touchdowns on fade routes this season, including a brilliant 15-yard fade route for a score against Kansas State last Saturday.
"We don't play smash mouth football but we've been able to run the ball somewhat effectively," coach Mike Gundy said. "Brandon has the capability to throw fades and we have wide outs that go up and get them, like Mike Harrison on Saturday."
Fullback Bryant Ward is a overlooked key to the Pokes' success. By acting as an extra blocker, Ward, one of the best lead blockers in the Big 12, gives the Pokes the ability to outman opponents in the run game — even in the red zone.
"He gives us an edge with his ability to block," Gundy said.
Kicker Dan Bailey changes offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's red zone mindset. Bailey hasn't missed a kick all season, so Holgorsen takes a more conservative approach.
"I've been on a lot of teams where we get down there and they can't make them," Holgorsen said. "We try to be conservative with what we call down there."
Because three points is better than nothing.
Kansas State proved that on Saturday. When KSU kicker Josh Cherry missed a short field goal early in the third quarter, it sucked the life out of the Wildcats and sparked the Pokes to a win.
Bailey is 10 of 10 on red zone field goals and, while the goal is a touchdown, his contribution cannot be underrated.
"Coach Holgorsen always goes through the stats," Weeden said. "And red zone (percentage) is always a big thing."
Red Zone Warriors
Here's a look at the redzone numbers for Oklahoma State's top playmakers:
Quarterback Brandon Weeden
23 of 37 pass attempts for 195 yards (62.2 percent), 10 touchdowns, one interception, 190.21 quarterback rating.
Running back Kendall Hunter
38 carries for 134 yards (3.53 yards per carry), 10 touchdowns
Running back Jeremy Smith
12 carries for 31 yards (2.58 yards per carry) 3 touchdowns
Receiver Justin Blackmon
Eight receptions for 61 yards (7.63 yards per catch), four touchdowns
Receiver Josh Cooper
Six receptions for 48 yards (8.00 yards per catch), two touchdowns
Receiver Michael Harrison
Two receptions for 16 yards (8.00 yards per catch), two touchdowns