STILLWATER — Through another ragged and frustrating offensive performance against TCU, a beacon of hope and optimism attached to one Cowboy: running back Rennie Childs.
A breakthrough for the Oklahoma State running game?
A breakout for Childs?
No one knows for sure — not even his coaches or teammates — which is often the case when true freshmen get thrown into the mix. There's always a curiosity of whether a young player can repeat success from a small sample size.
Still, Childs gained everyone's attention, after entering in the second half against the Horned Frogs and running for a team-high 45 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, and scooting 34 yards on a swing pass.
“I guess he kind of made a spark on this team,” said Cowboys guard Brandon Webb. “He's a real tough downhill runner. He's not really big, but he's still a physical runner. It was impressive.”
OSU's rushing offense, regularly a given over the past seven seasons, continues to lag. The Cowboys rank No. 7 in the Big 12 and 95th nationally in rushing yards per game. They're averaging just 136.5 yards in the run game; 3.9 per carry.
By comparison, OSU has averaged at least 174.4 yards per game since Mike Gundy's second season in 2006, producing a 1,000-yard rusher in each of those seasons and a first-team All-Big 12 back in five of the six.
Last season, Joseph Randle ran for 100 yards or more nine times.
Between Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland, who have received the majority of OSU's carries, the Cowboys claim but one 100-yard effort at this season's midway point, and that came in the opener against Mississippi State.
So Childs' spark is welcome.
“I'm not going to complain,” said Webb, part of an offensive line that has received its share of criticism for the offense's struggles. “You want to hit the hole downhill, I'm for that.
“Rennie got a pass out there for 30 once, was hitting some runs for chunk yardage. If it affects the run game, that's what you need to open up everything else. I'm all for it.”
The question now with the Cowboys headed for Iowa State Saturday: where does the OSU run game go from here? And what is Childs' role in determining the course?
Gundy offers caution, pointing out how much is involved in getting young backs ready to not only run, but handle the other responsibilities, like grasping the playbook, picking up blitzes, etc.
“There's other things involved in playing running back than just running the ball,” Gundy said, “and he's done fairly well in those areas over the last three weeks.
“We were leaning toward using him some against Kansas State, but the truth is, as a position coach, it's hard to really put a guy in that's never played in a game in a key moment in a close game in case he makes a big mistake or something happens.”
When it was Smith who made the big mistake — fumbling away a first-down run in the third quarter — the rookie got his shot.
“And he took advantage of it,” Webb said.
Ironically, Childs was Randle's replacement of sorts. The Cowboys didn't have a scholarship for him until Randle decided to forego his senior season and jump to the NFL. Only then did they double back and grab Childs to fill Randle's void.
Maybe now he'll fill the void further.
Childs was a late-blooming recruit, running for 1,945 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior at Cypress Ridge High in the Houston area.
Not permitted to talk to the media as a first-year player, Childs told The Oklahoman last winter that a style change spurred his big senior season.
“Coming into my senior year, I wanted to make a change,” said Childs, who stands 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. “I wanted to change the way I ran. After watching Trent Richardson, I was like, ‘Dude, that's how I want to run.'
“I wanted to be more explosive, lower my shoulder on somebody, run them over and really showcase my skills and what I can do.”
Those skills were on display against TCU.
“He's got an edge to him,” said OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. “He's competitive. And he's tough. And when he sees it, he hits it. There's no hesitation.”
That attacking burst had been missing from the Cowboys running game.
Again, Gundy remains cautious, although he allows that Childs has obviously earned a deeper look.
“I really think Rennie could be a big factor in our offense,” said OSU receiver Josh Stewart. “And you saw that against TCU.”