STILLWATER — Cowboys guard Lane Taylor sizes up the Texas defensive front with full respect.
“They're pretty stout,” Taylor said this week. “Obviously, they have All-American defensive ends with great size, strength and speed. Their defensive tackles, they've been there a while; they've gotten reps.
“They play hard …”
Still, Taylor reveals no hint of concern about the matchup — the key matchup? — he and his linemates face along the interior Saturday night.
“It'll be fun blocking them,” Taylor said with a grin.
If that sounds like a bit of attitude from Taylor, a senior four-year starter, well, it is. And attitude is required in the trenches, where machismo is mandatory with the big bodies colliding, crashing, scrapping and straining for coveted bits of turf, particularly in the run game, where a crease of daylight can serve as a long-distance launching point.
And the Cowboys need to run — must run it seems — and successfully, to forge respect from the Longhorns defense and relieve pressure from their freshman quarterback.
OSU remains a spread passing team, still sending three and four receivers into pass patterns. That remains the Cowboys' identity.
Yet it's a split identity, balanced by a strong rushing attack. And unlike the past two seasons, when Brandon Weeden fired first in the passing game and Justin Blackmon stoked fear, OSU would prefer to lean a little more on the legs of tailbacks Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, relying less on freshmen J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt, whoever it is behind center.
And never more than Saturday night, facing a Texas defense tagged as one of the best in the Big 12.
“We've tried to not be what we were last year,” said Cowboys offensive coordinator Todd Monken. “We've tried to take the pressure off Wes or J.W. and have a run plan, and play-action, and get out on the perimeter, so we don't put ourselves in such harm's way and put so much pressure on these young guys to just have to play.”
In winning back-to-back games in Austin the past two seasons, the Cowboys popped the Longhorns on the ground.
A year ago, OSU ran for 202 yards, with Smith scorching Texas for touchdown romps of 30 and 74 yards on his way to a 140-yard effort on just seven carries. Overall, the Cowboys averaged 7.5 yards per run.
In 2010, Weeden lit up the Horns, but Kendall Hunter also rushed for 116 yards and two scores in a game that was a runaway early.
“They're able to run the ball so much better than they were a few years ago,” said Texas coach Mack Brown. “I think the spread offenses that are running the ball are giving us much more difficulty in stopping them than those that aren't. Randle and Smith are very good running backs.”
Still, this is different.
Those teams were aided by the threat of Weeden2Blackmon, which helped open up the running game. Neither Walsh nor Lunt and (name the receiver) have developed such respect, yet.
So, can the Cowboys still run it effectively? Or will the passing game have to spark first?
That's a key Saturday storyline.
“If we don't stop them, then we're in major trouble,” said Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “After that, the play-action pass game opens up. They can hurt you in a lot of different ways.”
Spreading the field at least allows OSU natural gaps and doesn't require an overall toe-to-toe slugfest that could favor a Texas front that features elite ends in Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat.
But that, too, can create other issues.
“The more you get spread out, the more the pressure gets put on your skill guys and your quarterback,” Monken said. “The more you tighten down a little bit, it alleviates some of that and puts the pressure on your O-line.”
And we know how at least one member of the O-line feels about that pressure.
“I take it as a challenge,” Taylor said. “I love going against good competition.
“We'll always run the ball. It doesn't really matter what week or what quarterback's in.
“We're always going to run the ball. Throw the ball. I don't think it changes a lot.”
The Cowboys have talked about leaning more on the running game this season. And their backs are ready to carry the load.
“Always,” said Smith. “I say it every time, ‘Just call our names.' We're always going to be ready. We come out here and practice hard each and every day, and we've got to make them know that they can still count on us.
“Any type of situation — third-and-8, fourth-and-1 — any type of situation, they can count on us.”