LAWRENCE, Kan. — For the first time in nearly a month, Oklahoma State fans saw starting quarterback Wes Lunt off crutches, out of a boot and warming up with teammates before the Cowboys took on Kansas.
But the coaches had already determined Lunt's left knee was not healthy enough for the true freshman to return to the field, especially in the slippery and rainy conditions in a game that featured a lightning delay of one hour and 19 minutes.
Lunt was available to play against the Jayhawks, coach Mike Gundy would say after the game, but J.W. Walsh instead got his second-career start Saturday at Memorial Stadium in a 20-14 OSU victory where the offense scored just enough but struggled to find consistency.
“It wasn't what I wanted it to be, and what we needed it to be,” Walsh said. “But we'll take a win when we can get it.”
Walsh had established himself as a suitable option at quarterback in Lunt's absence, first while filling in when Lunt went down early against Louisiana-Lafayette, then in his first-career start against Texas two weeks ago. He entered the game ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency. But downfield passing has always been regarded as Walsh's weakness — and the reason why he doesn't fit OSU's spread system as well as Lunt — and it showed in a performance Saturday where he completed 18 of 29 passes for 255 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
“We took shots down the field,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “We just weren't really efficient at it. So when you do that and you're behind the sticks, you're going to play choppy like that.”
Granted, plenty of other factors hindered OSU's passing game.
Joseph Randle (80 yards on 29 carries) and the OSU rushing attack couldn't get going against a KU squad that entered Saturday allowing more than 217 yards on the ground per game. Two of Walsh's top targets, Tracy Moore and Isaiah Anderson, left the game with injuries. The wet conditions certainly didn't help matters.
And Monken ultimately took the blame for what he believed was bad play calling.
“It's my fault,” Monken said. “I've got to trust our quarterback more and (call plays to) throw it and trust him to make good decisions. Because we can't just go into a shell and not count on him to make plays and our guys to make plays.”
The biggest play of the game for the Cowboys — the longest play from scrimmage for OSU this season, in fact — came when Charlie Moore did the majority of the leg work on a short pass that turned into a 72-yard catch and run down the sideline for a score. Walsh also used his arm to set up OSU's first touchdown when he hit Tracy Moore for a 31-yard pass before taking the ball into the end zone himself from four yards out. But the only other points OSU could muster against a defense that ranked 97th in the nation entering Saturday were a pair of Quinn Sharp field goals.
All told, the offensive output halted OSU's streak of 22 consecutive games of scoring 30 points or more.
“It was a serious struggle,” Gundy said. “And it was painful for me to watch. We've been fortunate over a number of years, we just kind of roll out there on offense. It frustrates me, because that's my background.”
Despite the inconsistencies, Monken said there were no thoughts of switching from Walsh to Lunt during the course of the game. The plan had been built for Walsh, and Walsh got the needed practice time.
“Without taking as many reps during the week, you have no idea what you're going to get with Wes,” Monken said.
So has Walsh made his last start for the Cowboys? It's still difficult to say.
Monken and Gundy are both pleased with the rate at which Lunt is recovering, noting that his pain is steadily decreasing. But his status is likely to remain day-to-day next week as the Cowboys prepare for their Homecoming contest against Iowa State.
And Walsh refuses to approach next week like he's about to return to backup duty.
“(Sunday I'll) look on film and make corrections,” Walsh said, “and move forward like I'm the starter, like I've always prepared.”