STILLWATER — When looking at the Fiesta Bowl matchup between No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Stanford, it's easy to immediately focus on the quarterback battle, with Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden leading their 11-1 teams into University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Luck was the Heisman runner-up for the second consecutive season and is the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Weeden was also a Heisman candidate late in the season, finished third in the nation with more than 361 passing yards per game and will also be a draft pick in April.
But because of those dynamite signal-callers, each team's running game tends to get overlooked.
Both the Cowboys and Cardinal feature a back that ran for more than 1,100 yards this season in OSU's Joseph Randle and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor.
Both teams have a viable second option in the backfield in OSU's Jeremy Smith and Stanford's Tyler Gaffney.
Both teams have two dominant, All-American offensive linemen in OSU's Levy Adcock and Grant Garner and Stanford's David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin.
And both teams are incredibly efficient on the ground, averaging more than five yards per carry.
OSU and Stanford utilize its running game in a different way, but it plays an equally important role in both offenses.
Stanford's is a power attack, which then opens the pass up for Luck in the Cardinal's pro-style offense. Even with a superstar like Luck at quarterback, Stanford runs the ball more times (39) than it throws (31) each game.
The Cowboys use the pass out of the spread to set up the run. That usually leads to big chunks of yards on each carry, as OSU is the only team ranked in the top 50 in the nation in rushing yards per game that used fewer than 420 attempts to get there. And it also leads to lots of scores, as Randle ranks third in the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns.
We saw just how crucial that part of the Cowboy offense is during OSU's last two games.
In the Cowboys' double-overtime loss at Iowa State, they ran for just 60 yards. The offensive line graded out poorly. Randle fumbled twice and was benched. That forced Weeden to throw 58 passes, and he was picked off three times.
Running the ball became a focal point of the Bedlam game plan for Mike Gundy and the rest of the coaches, both because they wanted to keep the Cowboy defense off the field and because they did not think Oklahoma would expect that type of attack.
The result? Randle and Smith both went over 100 yards and scored two touchdowns in OSU's 44-10 throttling of the Sooners.
Having the same success against Stanford will be a challenge for OSU, as the Cardinal ranks fifth in the nation in rushing defense (90.33 yards allowed per game).
Conversely, the Cowboys give up more than 180 rushing yards per game. But the sometimes misleading yards allowed stats connected to the OSU defense have been well-documented all season.
All eyes will understandably be on Luck and Weeden on Jan. 2. But the ground game, not the air attack, will likely decide which team wins the Fiesta Bowl.