STILLWATER — Oklahoma State faces an identity crisis.
Injuries are no doubt contributing, with personnel hits on both sides of the ball reshaping the team's image. Yet even at full strength, who, or what, are these Cowboys?
Not the offensive assault squad from recent seasons.
Not the denying defense they planned on being.
Not a team being talked about in Big 12 contender conversations.
“I feel like right now the perception of our defense and our team isn't where it could be,” said linebacker Alex Elkins. “And perception is everything.”
With today's homecoming clash with Iowa State beginning a stretch of seven games involving six teams ranked in the BCS Standings, the Cowboys admit a sense of urgency in reestablishing themselves as still a factor in the Big 12 and beyond.
At 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the conference, OSU stands at a crossroad to the season.
“We can't stub our toe another time,” said defensive coordinator Bill Young. “We've got to keep going. We still have a chance to win the conference.”
The major question: who will lead them?
Where OSU's recent successful teams had defined faces of the program – Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon, Markelle Martin, Zac Robinson, Russell Okung, Kendall Hunter, Dez Bryant, et al – these Cowboys present no such go-to image.
Who, or what, do they turn to in times of stress?
In piling up 41 wins over the past four seasons, OSU always knew.
And now… TBD.
An avalanche of injuries can't be dismissed. The Cowboys' offensive identity, heavily responsible for the program's positive national perception of late, was reshaped when starter Wes Lunt went down in Week 3. Since then, OSU has leaned on the run game, and the team's most recognized star, Joseph Randle.
While Randle has produced, the overall offense has suffered as the approach has veered away from the Cowboys' ideal persona.
“We would have felt the same way the last two years if Weeden had gotten hurt,” said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy. “It wouldn't have been near as much fun.
“So that happens. And when you lose a guy like that, you have to make some adjustments. We don't know where Wes would be right now, but he'd be going into his sixth game. His maturity level would be considerably further than it is now.”
Meanwhile, Lunt's return remains a mystery.
Either way, with Lunt or his so-far capable replacement, J.W. Walsh, the Cowboys progress with a freshman at quarterback.
“We're young at the most critical spot – the guy who takes the snap,” said offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
The identity crisis extends beyond quarterback. So far, no go-to receiver has emerged and a defense that once made a living on takeaways suddenly can't get opposing offenses to share the football.
Where do the Cowboys go from here? And who do they become?
Saturday's game may provide a hint.
“We have a chance to win every game left on our schedule if we don't turn it over,” Monken said. “There won't be one game we can't win.”
Said Elkins: “Right now, we're trying to achieve 100 percent dedication and full focus. We're in a hole and the only way we're going to be able to fix that is to go out there and execute.
“And I feel like that's something we can do. And we're going to do.”