STILLWATER — Josh Stewart hadn't taken a snap at running back since his Little League football days.
But there he was against Texas Tech, motioning from his spot at receiver, stopping in the backfield and then receiving a direct handoff.
Was that just OSU throwing a wrinkle at the Red Raiders that they would never have seen on film? An effort to get the Cowboys' best playmaker the football in a time when his production has dipped? Or a more long-term development for an OSU offense that still continues to evolve the No. 14 Cowboys prepare to face Kansas Saturday afternoon at Boone Pickens Stadium.
How about all of the above?
“It's easier to give it to a running back,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said. “You can almost secure that (position is) gonna get the ball so many times. So we try to find ways for (Stewart) to touch the football with the system that we use on game day.”
After a largely disjointed and ineffective first half of the season, the Cowboy offense has started to come together over the last three games.
Against TCU, the Cowboys made the quarterback switch from J.W. Walsh to Clint Chelf. Against Iowa State, the running game emerged, with Desmond Roland providing a rugged downhill style behind a retooled offensive line. Against Texas Tech, Chelf gave the Cowboys a downfield passing attack and proved to be a legitimate running threat.
But since the quarterback change, Stewart's impact has dwindled.
With Chelf at quarterback against TCU, Stewart had three catches for 42 yards, with 27 of those coming on a ball thrown by receiver Charlie Moore on a trick play. Against Iowa State, Stewart finished with three catches for 10 yards, though Chelf had trouble finding any Cowboy receiver on a day where he completed just 10-of-26 passes for 78 yards. Against Tech, Stewart had a team-high six catches but just 27 yards.
The Cowboys have always tried to get Stewart the ball in a variety of ways because of his ability to make defenders miss in the open field.
He can find the soft spot in the defense and turn a short catch into a long gain. He can go in motion and get the ball on a short flip and get out to the edge. And, of course, he's become one of the most dynamic special teams weapons in the country, ranking fourth in the nation in punt return average (19.2 yards) and two touchdowns.
But lining up in the backfield? This was brand new.
Gundy said OSU has had that five-receiver look installed all season. And when practice began last week, Stewart found out he'd likely get handoffs against Tech.
“I always joke around with (running backs coach Jemal) Singleton, like, ‘Give me a couple handoffs,' and it's always a joke,” Stewart said. “But I come to practice before the Tech game and it's like, ‘We're gonna do this and we're gonna put you in the backfield and you're gonna run.' It's very cool.”
It was a bit reminiscent of West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin playing running back against Oklahoma last season, though Stewart didn't have nearly as much success. In fact, the results were marginal: Four yards on two carries.
And now, Kansas — and every other team remaining on OSU's schedule — will see this wrinkle on film. That means the surprise element is gone. But it also gives those squads something else to prepare for.
Will Stewart channel his Little League running back days again Saturday? Will OSU find another creative way to get the ball in his hands?
“We would love for him to touch the ball 15 times a game,” Gundy said. “I've said this for years: You can't always promise that with a wide receiver.”