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.
3. This offensive line is a challenge, even for Joe Wickline. The Cowboys' veteran offensive line coach has a history of regularly producing top-caliber units, even under less-than-ideal situations. So far, Wickline has been tested severely, with the preseason injury to left tackle Devin Davis lingering as troublesome for a front that was already thin. When Davis was lost, Parker Graham shifted from right guard to left tackle, essentially weakening both spots. Three different players — Travis Cross, Paul Lewis and Chris Grisbhy — have started at right guard with unsatisfying results.
The outlook: There's still time for Wickline to work his magic, and based on his track record there's reason for optimism. Yet the cast of characters isn't likely to change, so Wickline must shape and mold the men already in place.
4. The kicking game isn't automatic at OSU. It sure used to seem that way, as for decades the Cowboys have sent out a stream of talented kickers and punters, always seeming to have the next one ready to step in. And yet, replacing Quinn Sharp — who handled punts, placements and kickoffs — has proved tricky. And when the Cowboys needed their kickers most last week in Morgantown, they failed them, with two poor punts and two missed field goals factoring heavily into the loss. Neither Kip Smith nor Ben Grogan rank in the Big 12's top 10 for punting or field goals, respectively.
The outlook: Smith's kickoffs are solid and he's been mostly dependable as a punter, with the two bad boots at West Virginia — which were surrounded by much better kicks — the exception. Grogan, however, is just 1-for-4 on field goals and there have to be questions about confidence, both his and his team's in him. Both appear to be secure in their roles, for now.
5. A bright spot: the defense. Hey, all we've learned isn't negative. The defense, clearly playing with more purpose and passion, has responded to the attacking style employed by first-year coordinator Glenn Spencer. Even in the loss, the Cowboys' defense did its part, with one touchdown coming on a pick-6 of Walsh and most of the other points set up by offensive miscues. Calvin Barnett, James Castleman, Caleb Lavey, Justin Gilbert and Shaun Lewis have all been outstanding.
The outlook: Until OSU gets its offensive issues worked out, improved defense is a valuable asset. And in a league that lacks explosive offenses overall, there's reason to believe this can continue.