STILLWATER — Certain stages in a season make for natural checkpoints in evaluating what we've learned about a team.
Coming out of nonconference play. The midway point. Postseason.
Yet is there a better time to reexamine a squad than after a loss?
For OSU, several warning flags were raised following Saturday's 30-21 loss at West Virginia. And several fears must be calmed for the Cowboys — the preseason pick as league favorite — to re-enter conversations of Big 12 title contention.
What we learned Saturday in Morgantown:
1. Week to week with Walsh. Sophomore quarterback J.W. Walsh worked hard on his passing in the offseason and has shown some improvement. Still, he's not Brandon Weeden. Or Josh Fields. Or maybe even Zac Robinson when it comes to throwing the ball accurately and consistently and definitively with zip. That doesn't make Walsh a bad quarterback — maybe a bad fit for the Air Raid, which frankly isn't in play at this time — it just means he's susceptible to significant fluctuations in his play, both within games and week to week. This should come as no surprise, as it's nothing new. Last season in his three starts, on his way to Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors mind you, Walsh was very good against Texas and Iowa State; not so good against Kansas. This year, he's been a difference-maker against Mississippi State and UTSA; erratic against Lamar and WVU.
The outlook: The reality check is that this is who Walsh is, both good and bad. He can make plays with his arm and legs and can lead. There's also the belief that he's a winner; a quarterback who can will his team to wins despite a lack of elite skills. Can the Cowboys thrive over the long haul with Walsh behind center? There's evidence to suggest so, although enough has to go right around him to facilitate victory when he's not on his A game. And Saturday, the support group was AWOL.
2. Tailback Who? OSU's running game was bottled up by the Mountaineers, left with one of the most disappointing days of production in recent memory and reviving questions about how much Joe Randle is missed. Mike Gundy repeated his mantra this week: “We have to have balance. We have to be able to run it.” The Cowboys struggled running Saturday, and not for lack of trying, gaining a net 111 yards on 40 carries. Jeremy Smith finished with 1 yard on 15 carries. Desmond Roland was better, yet didn't conjure visions of a guy who can carry on an OSU legacy that has produced first-team All-Big 12 running backs five of the past six years and six straight seasons of a 1,000-yard rusher.
The outlook: The rough run-game outing in Morgantown may have been nothing more than a bad day at the office. Smith has a track record of solid production, and Roland offers a downhill mentality. Still, neither is a burner or has make-you-miss moves, limiting how dynamic the run game can be. There's been chatter about getting true freshman Rennie Childs more involved, although Gundy downplayed that option Monday. At least a look at Childs would seem to be in order.