STILLWATER — One-third of the season is already over for Oklahoma State.
Through four games, the Cowboys have slipped out of the polls and sit at 2-2, with a pair of victories over inferior opponents, a self-destructive performance at Arizona and a heartbreaking loss in the final minute to No. 11 Texas to open Big 12 play.
It's clearly been a mixed bag for OSU so far in 2012. But as the Cowboys head into their last bye week — yes, already — before finishing the season with eight consecutive conference games, here are three things we've learned, and three questions that still remain.
What we've learned
1. OSU has two solid quarterbacks
Make no mistake, Wes Lunt will get the starting job back when he returns from his left knee injury sustained early in the Cowboys' victory against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 15. He's got the ideal arm to run OSU's throw-first spread offense, and has impressed coaches with his intelligence and calm demeanor on the field. He's the Cowboys' quarterback of the future and present.
But J.W. Walsh has proved to be a dependable — and oftentimes, exciting — backup. He was outstanding in emergency duty against ULL, accounting for five touchdowns while directing a Cowboy offense that put up a school-record 742 yards, then nearly led OSU to an upset victory over the Longhorns.
There won't be a quarterback controversy in Stillwater. But it will be interesting to see how Walsh is used when Lunt returns. The Walsh package that was advertised by coaches has never really materialized because of the circumstances of the early season, but he's shown a dangerous ability to run and a better-than-average arm. He could still add an extra dimension to this offense in certain situations.
2. The Cowboy offense has life post-Weeden2Blackmon
The last time OSU lost its two offensive superstars — quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant — it dramatically changed its offensive system to fit its personnel.
Not so in 2012, after losing the next dynamite quarterback-receiver combo in Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Coach Mike Gundy and Co. are fully committed to running the Air Raid spread installed by Dana Holgorsen in 2010, and the offense has continued to flourish, even after Weeden and Blackmon became first-round NFL Draft picks. It's even hummed along just fine without its starting quarterback for nearly two games.
OSU currently leads the nation in both scoring offense (55.75 points per game) and total offense (659 yards per game) and ranks in the top 10 in both passing offense (sixth, 359 yards per game) and rushing offense (seventh, 300 yards per game).
Yes, some of those stats are skewed by Savannah State. But the Cowboys put up 576 yards and 36 points against a Texas defense regarded as one of the better units in the Big 12.
3. Markelle Martin is missed
It's highly possible Martin is the player from last season's team that the Cowboys miss the most. Not just for his ferocious hits and leadership, but for his over-the-top help in pass coverage.
The secondary has been the biggest disappointment for the Cowboys so far, especially in defending the deep ball. Whoever has played Martin's old position of strong safety — Shamiel Gary or Lavocheya Cooper — has struggled against the pass.
So have cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert, who were touted as arguably the best duo in the conference before the season. They've both been consistently beat 1-on-1, been called for pass interference and have not made an interception after accounting for 10 last season.
Perhaps Martin helped those two more than we realized.
Three remaining questions
1. Where are the turnovers?
The 2012 version of the Cowboy defense was hyped in the preseason as a group that would allow fewer yards while still keeping its identity of forcing turnovers. OSU led the nation with 44 takeaways last season, and defensive coordinator Bill Young said the team's goal is to force three per game.
The Cowboys haven't come anywhere close to that, as they have four takeaways in four games. Two were against Savannah State. All four came from backups, with interceptions by Ashton Lampkin, Lyndell Johnson and Tyler Johnson and a fumble recovery by Joe Mitchell.
OSU did become the first team to intercept Texas quarterback David Ash, but it will need to make more momentum-shifting plays during the Big 12 season. Otherwise, issues like not being able to get the key stop on third and fourth down are going to be magnified.
2. Where is the depth?
Another apparent strength of this Cowboy team before the season was the depth, especially on defense. But in its two legitimate games, it hasn't shown.
Against Arizona, defensive tackle Christian Littlehead and wide receiver Austin Hays didn't play, and guys like linebacker Ryan Simmons and wide receiver Charlie Moore barely played. Against Texas, running back Joseph Randle and Calvin Barnett needed to come off the field at critical moments in the fourth quarter because they appeared to be gassed after playing nearly the entire contest.
Injuries have also contributed to OSU's thinning depth at certain spots. Backup cornerbacks Devin Hedgepeth and Jonovan Griffin were both lost to season-ending injuries, backup cornerback Andrae May and backup receiver Torrance Carr haven't played yet this season and Hays, Cooper, Tyler Johnson and Lyndell Johnson have missed time.
3. When will Lunt return?
The two byes in three weeks worked out well for Lunt's recovery. Gundy said Monday that Lunt could return to practice by the end of the week.
If Lunt does not start against Kansas on Oct. 13, expect him to be back by the Oct. 20 Homecoming contest against Iowa State.