BY GINA MIZELL, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
STILLWATER — The space from the defense's 20-yard line to the goal line has long been dubbed the red zone, alerting all that the offense is in a great position to put points on the board.
That's been a guarantee for Oklahoma State so far in 2013. Not just that the Cowboys will score in that situation, but that they'll get into the end zone.
OSU is a perfect 15-for-15 inside the red zone this season, with all scores being touchdowns. That pristine scoring percentage is tied with nine others for first in the nation, but OSU is the only one of those teams that has never needed to settle for a field goal inside the 20.
“Whoever is gonna have the ball in their hands, you know they're gonna make plays,” quarterback J.W. Walsh said. “It makes it easy on us. As long as we can get the ball into their hands, good things will happen.
“That's what we've been able to do so far, so we're gonna hope to continue with that.”
Red zone success is nothing new for the Cowboys, even while running an Air Raid spread system that historically can sometimes struggle when the field condenses and defenders have less grass to cover. OSU ranked fourth in the nation in red zone conversions (93 percent) last season, 14th in 2011 (89 percent) and first in 2010 (95 percent).
But 15 touchdowns in 15 trips is next-level efficiency.
Coach Mike Gundy attributes much of the Cowboys' ability to cross the goal line in those circumstances to Walsh's running ability, both by cutting to the outside and by pounding his way through defenders in the middle. After all, OSU installed a specialty package for the dual-threat quarterback for those exact situations last season.
Walsh also gets a major assist from his supporting cast. Jeremy Smith's rugged running style has been utilized in short-yardage and goal-line situations his entire career, as he scored a touchdown in 10 consecutive games that spanned the 2010 and 2011 seasons while serving as a complementary back behind Joseph Randle and Kendall Hunter.
And while the fade route from Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon is no longer a deadly option for these Cowboys, Josh Stewart has the ability to dance his way to a score following a screen pass caught near the 10-yard line. Tracy Moore, Blake Jackson and Marcell Ateman provide big, physical options at receiver, while Jhajuan Seales and Brandon Sheperd have already shown sharp route-running and an ability to get open in the end zone.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich points to three keys to red zone success.
First is having a solid kicker, though Ben Grogan hasn't yet been needed in that particular situation.
Second is ball security, where the Cowboys have excelled so far this season in turning the ball over just once through three games.
Third is balance, which is evidenced by the 10 red zone touchdowns on the ground and the five through the air. Those rushing scores range from one yard out and 20 yards out, while three of them have come from the quarterback spot. The passing scores range from two yards away to 19 yards away and include tosses to the back of the end zone and well in front of the goal line.
“When you can pass the ball and run the ball equally, you give yourselves the best chance and a defense can't lean in one direction or another,” Yurcich said.
OSU's speedy tempo can give the Cowboys an edge, as well. That sometimes does not allow the defense to make necessary substitutions for a goal-line package. And by the time the Cowboys reach the red zone, that's when they hope those defenders on the field are starting to get winded.
“They're at the top end of being tired,” Yurcich said, “so that's when you really see the culmination of your ‘turbos,' your tempos, and then they're exhausted and you wear them out and that's the end of it.”
The Cowboys will attempt to keep up their perfect red zone pace Saturday against West Virginia, a team that ranks 71st in the nation in red zone defense by allowing six touchdowns and five field goals in 13 total opponent trips.
Because so far for OSU, “red zone” has really meant “score zone.”