NCF Nation: Keith Toston

Mike Gundy had a front-row seat to see two of the best backs in Oklahoma State history, Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders, the latter of whom has a case as the best back in college football history. Few, if anyone, knows more or saw more of the so-called "glory days" of Running Back U in Stillwater. Both of those Oklahoma State backs went on to be NFL MVPs.

As Oklahoma State's head coach, Gundy oversees an offense that isn't shy about being a pass-first scheme. Despite that, he's still watching some of the best days running the ball in Oklahoma State history. The best, one could certainly argue, in the Big 12.

Joseph Randle led the Big 12 in rushing by more than 400 yards with 1,417 yards and 14 scores in 2012, electing to leave Stillwater a year early and enter the NFL draft. Quietly, it was Oklahoma State's sixth consecutive season with a 1,000-yard rusher, despite churning out great quarterback play over that same period with passers like Brandon Weeden and Zac Robinson, who was a strong runner as well.

That ties Pac-12 power Oregon for the nation's third-longest streak, behind only a pair of programs from the run-heavy Big Ten, Penn State and Wisconsin, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

But compared to the rest of the Big 12, it's even more impressive. The Pokes have had a 1,000-yard rusher every season since 2007, and four different backs (Dantrell Savage, Kendall Hunter, Keith Toston, Joseph Randle) have helped extend that streak.

Over that same period, here's how many 1,000-yard rushers the Big 12's other teams have had (with a hat tip to Oklahoma State running backs coach Jemal Singleton):
  • Kansas State (4)
  • Baylor, Oklahoma, West Virginia (3)
  • Kansas (2)
  • Iowa State, Texas, TCU (1)
  • Texas Tech (0)

For all its prowess throwing the ball, you've got to respect Oklahoma State's ability to run it, too. Baylor's streak of three consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher is the closest to the Pokes' streak of six, but with senior Jeremy Smith stepping up to collect the majority of the carries in 2013, I wouldn't bet against OSU making it seven consecutive years in 2013.
Mike Gundy has been through this before.

After a 9-4 season in 2008, Oklahoma State brought back quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant, one of the nation's best. The team also had an All-America running back coming off a 1,500-yard season.

The Cowboys opened the season at No. 8 and rose to the top five after a season-opening victory over Georgia in one of the most anticipated season openers in school history.

[+] EnlargeMike Gundy
Chuck Cook/US PresswireCoach Mike Gundy hopes the experiences from the 2009 season will help his players stay focused despite the hype around the program.
Oklahoma State's opener isn't quite as attractive this year, but the build-up to the season?

"Very similar," Gundy said.

Oklahoma State won a school-record 11 games in 2010 and returns one of the nation's best quarterbacks, Brandon Weeden. Justin Blackmon exceeded anything Bryant ever did, leading the nation with 20 receiving touchdowns. He also had 1,782 yards on 111 catches to win the Biletnikoff Award.

Hunter is gone, but in his place, a capable duo with loads of potential in Jeremy Smith and Joseph Randle.

In a recent preseason poll by "College Football Live," the Cowboys rolled in at No. 8.

"We’re so well-received across the country right now and hopefully, the experience we had in the summer prior to 2009 will help our players understand the importance of staying focused and getting ready for a good season," Gundy said.

But back in 2009, after the win over Georgia, the Cowboys' lofty hopes of a title crumbled with a series of setbacks. First, they suffered a loss to Houston the following week. An ankle injury slowed Hunter, and forced senior Keith Toston to fill his role. The NCAA suspended Bryant for the remainder of the season after three games for lying about his relationship with Deion Sanders.

Late in the year, a shoulder injury to Robinson contributed to the Cowboys getting shut out in a loss to Oklahoma and scoring just seven points in a Cotton Bowl loss to Ole Miss.

Two years later, they're trying to avoid the problems that arose during that 9-4 season in 2009, and apply the lessons learned.

"It takes a lot to maintain. They’ve worked extremely hard to raise the level to where they’re at now, but they have to stay focused and have a great offseason," Gundy said. "There’s so many distractions out there nowadays, and it’s important to avoid distractions and take care of everything that’s important off the field as well as on the field."

Last year, the Cowboys were picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 South after losing Robinson, Bryant and four offensive linemen, but with the hype of this offseason, things will be different this fall.

"We’re not going to have the opportunity to sneak up on anybody," Gundy said. "People are obviously aware of who we are, and so we have to go back and earn our stripes each summer and prepare for kicking it off in September."

OSU's Hunter returns with a venegance

September, 7, 2010
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Kendall Hunter doesn't talk much, but he was talking before Saturday's game against Washington State. Even if his words were brief and quiet as usual.

"I'm ready, I'm ready," he kept telling his position coach.

[+] EnlargeKendall Hunter
Tim Heitman/US PresswireKendall Hunter rushed for 257 yards in the opener and now needs only 126 yards to surpass his season total from 2009.
If only Washington State, warming up across the field at Boone Pickens Stadium, knew just how ready Oklahoma State's running back really was. Hobbled by an ankle injury in 2009, Hunter missed five games and managed just 382 yards while attempting to play through the injury for most of the season.

His first carry went for 17 yards, his day developed into a 257-yard season debut, and now Hunter needs only 126 yards to surpass his output in all of 2009. After one week of football, he's the nation's leading rusher.

"Above average? Would that work?" said Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, describing Hunter's day. "He is the fifth-best back in the Big 12, right? Nah, he's obviously pretty good. Heck, you know, it’s all about what you do for me lately. I understand how the whole thing works. He was pretty good two years ago, he’s the type of kid who’s not going to sit there and pout and feel sorry for himself. He’s going to be motivated by things some people won’t be motivated by."

Hunter had to sit and watch while his teammate, Keith Toston, took his spot and rushed for 1,200 yards in one of the most anticipated seasons in school history. Hunter got just one carry while Texas beat the Cowboys 41-14 in Stillwater. Hunter might not say last season's frustrations weighed on him or were on his mind, but he ran like it in his triumphant return to the field for his senior season.

"As the game went on, I kept asking him if he was tired and he kept saying, 'I just want to keep playing,' said Robert Gillespie, Oklahoma State's running backs coach. "He wanted to get out there so bad and just have fun. It was taken away from him last year, so this whole offseason he’s been working to get stronger, faster and smarter to become a better player."

Gillespie came to Oklahoma State before 2009, excited to coach an All-American coming off a 1,555-yard season, after three years coaching backs at South Carolina. Gillespie was disappointed Hunter didn't spend the season as his featured back, but saw the work he put in despite the injury. Saturday night was a long time coming.

Gillespie says Holgorsen's offense, implemented during spring and preseason camp, should fit Hunter perfectly and set him up for success at the next level. Scouts have seen Hunter -- a "strange combination of quick, fast and powerful," Holgorsen says -- run around and over defenders. This year, he'll have more chances to show he won't allow defenders to return the favor in pass protection.

"The film don’t lie, and the tape don’t lie," Holgorsen said. "Hopefully we can win some games and he gets on TV and everybody can see what the kid’s capable of, because he’s the best one I’ve been around."

Oklahoma State's new Air Raid offense figured to be pass-happy as the name suggests, with Hunter getting plenty of receptions as the team's obvious best offensive talent. He carried the ball 21 times against Washington State, amassing an outlandish 12.2 yards per carry, but sat for much of the 65-17 blowout's second half. The Cowboys threw Hunter's way about four times, Holgorsen estimated, but failed to establish the screen game or short passing game. Hunter finished with three catches for minus-4 yards. So instead, they took the simpler route to getting their playmaker the ball: handing it to him.

"We’re going to face some pretty good teams, I’m not oblivious to that. Some pretty good defenses out there with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Texas Tech that are going to have something to say about it. Everybody’s going to try to stop the run," Holgorsen said. "We're going to have to be able to execute that stuff to take some pressure off the running game. But that’s why I’m here, that’s why I’ve been hired."

Holgorsen knew the offense wouldn't be perfect on opening night. Far from it, he expected. He estimates it took two years before he got it to look "decent" at Texas Tech.

"Luckily we've got a guy like him," Holgorsen said. "We can hand it to him and he can make us all look good."

They'll do that plenty this year, and Hunter will keep making his offense look good with many more runs like he broke off against the Cougars. He finished with six runs of longer than 15 yards, including a 66-yarder and a 39-yarder for one of his four touchdowns.

"It's his time; he went through a lot last year," Gillespie said. "And he’s hungry."

AT&T Cotton Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
1/01/10
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Oklahoma State will be looking for its first bowl victory since 2007 as it tries to upset Mississippi in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Here’s a brief primer.

WHO TO WATCH: Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State

Hunter led the Big 12 in rushing last season, but has struggled with a foot injury in 2009, missing five games and never really recovering the form that enabled him to gain 1,555 yards last season. Keith Toston took over as Oklahoma State’s featured running threat and raced for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the Cowboys have missed a breakaway element in their running game all season. Hunter returned to action late in the regular season, but has looked reluctant to plant and cut the way he did last season. But after his Cotton Bowl practices, he appears to be finally rounding into form. His return against Mississippi should boost the productivity of the Cowboys’ offense and perhaps give him a jump-start for the 2010 season.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can the Cowboys protect Zac Robinson from theRebels’ lethal pass rush?

Oklahoma State’s offensive line has struggled protecting Robinson at times this season, ranking only ninth in the Big 12 in fewest sacks allowed. Rebels’ defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix has developed a productive defense that led the Southeastern Conference and had five different players with at least five sacks during the season, keyed by Marcus Tillman and Emmanuel Stephens with 5.5 sacks apiece. The biggest reason the Rebels have been successful with their pass rush is because their secondary has held up well this season. And with OSU consensus All-American tackle Russell Okung’s status iffy with a tweaked knee, it could be more difficult for the Cowboys to withstand the Rebels’ pressure. OSU must do a better job of protecting their quarterback than late in the season when Robinson’s performance dipped as he was hampered with injuries.

WHY WATCH: The coaching matchup between two former OSU quarterbacks

The association between Mississippi coach Houston Nutt and OSU coach Mike Gundy goes back a long way. Nutt was an OSU quarterback in 1979-80 and Gundy played at the position for the Cowboys from 1986 to 1989. During Gundy’s playing stint, Nutt served as the Cowboys’ wide receivers coach. They have remained close over the years. It will be interesting to see how teacher and pupil compete in the game -- and how they interact after it.

PREDICTION: Both OSU and Mississippi entered the season with a lot of preseason expectations, but struggled to match that hype after midseason slumps. Both teams like to feature their running backs as the Rebels’ Dexter McCluster will be matched against the Cowboys’ versatile duo of Toston and Hunter. Veteran OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young has had nearly a month to cook up a scheme to contain McCluster. But the Cowboys need to find a way to muster enough plays on offense to enable them to win. That’s easier said than done as the Rebels should find a way to persevere late in the game. Prediction: Mississippi 24, Oklahoma State 21.

McCoy, Suh head All-Big 12 team

December, 8, 2009
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Here's a look at my All-Big 12 team. There were couple of late selections that were affected by the Big 12 championship game. If you look closely enough, you probably will see where I made my switches.

Oklahoma leads the team with five selections, Texas had four and Nebraska and Missouri three picks apiece.

Offense:

QB: Colt McCoy, Texas

RB: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State

RB: Keith Toston, Oklahoma State

WR: Danario Alexander, Missouri

WR: Jordan Shipley, Texas

TE: Riar Geer, Colorado

OL: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State

OL: Brandon Carter, Texas Tech

OL: Trent Williams, Oklahoma

OL: Adam Ulatoski, Texas

C: Reggie Stephens, Iowa State

K: Grant Ressel, Missouri

KR: Brandon Banks, Kansas State

Defense:

DL: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

DL: Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma

DL: Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma

DL: Brandon Sharpe, Texas Tech

LB: Von Miller, Texas A&M

LB: Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri

LB: Joe Pawelek, Baylor

DB: Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State

DB: Earl Thomas, Texas

DB: Brian Jackson, Oklahoma

DB: Prince Amukamara, Nebraska

P: Alex Henery, Nebraska

PR: Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma

AT&T Cotton Bowl

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
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Oklahoma State Cowboys (9-3) vs. Mississippi Rebels (8-4)

Jan. 2, 2 p.m. (FOX)

Oklahoma State take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: Mike Gundy’s team had hopes of making its first BCS at-large appearance before a stunning 27-0 loss to Oklahoma to finish the season. They could be facing more of the same against a talented Mississippi defense that ranked in the top 25 in pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss. The Rebels whipped Texas Tech at the point of attack last season in the Cotton Bowl and will be looking for more of the same against the Cowboys. But they will be facing a different challenge from a run-heavy Oklahoma State offense keyed by All-American offensive tackle Russell Okung, bullish running back Keith Toston (1,177 rushing yards) and 2008 Big 12 rushing leader Kendall Hunter, who will have another month to get over his early-season injuries.

Bill Young has done a nice job retooling Oklahoma State's defense, which ranked sixth nationally in rush defense and will be tested by leading Mississippi running back Dexter McCluster (985 yards). The key for the game could well be which team gets the best play from quarterbacks who struggled late in the season. Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson was hobbled with injuries and Mississippi's Jevan Snead threw three interceptions in a season-ending loss at Mississippi State. These teams have met once before when Mississippi escaped with a 31-28 victory over the Cowboys in the 2004 Cotton Bowl.


Mississippi take by SEC blogger Chris Low:Ole Miss gets a return trip to Dallas, this time getting to play in the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium. The Rebels can only hope the whole Cotton Bowl experience is as much fun as last season when they shredded Texas Tech.

The end of this regular season wasn’t much fun for anybody in Oxford. Ole Miss was whipped 41-27 by rival Mississippi State, solidifying the Rebels as the toughest team to figure this season in the SEC. They didn’t live up to their top-10 billing early, but then hit a stretch in October and November where they did look like the real deal, only to bow meekly to the Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl.

After a brilliant debut season in the SEC, junior quarterback Jevan Snead threw 17 interceptions and was one of the more disappointing players in the league. He never found a rhythm and didn’t play with a lot of confidence at times.

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t put Dexter McCluster at running back full time until midway through the season, and boy, did he take off. Always a threat to go the distance, McCluster rushed for 821 yards in his last five SEC games.

Nutt and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy go back a ways. Nutt was an assistant coach on Oklahoma State’s staff when Gundy was the Cowboys’ quarterback in the 1980s.

Brown, McCoy, Suh are major award winners

December, 1, 2009
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Texas coach Mack Brown, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were announced today as the Big 12's coach of the year, offensive player of the year and defensive player of the year, respectively.

McCoy and Suh also were the only two unanimous first-team selections to the All-Big 12 team picked by coaches.

McCoy becomes the fourth Texas player to be selected as OPOY and the third Longhorn quarterback. Previous Texas selections included Ricky Williams (1997 and 1998), Major Applewhite (1999) and Vince Young (2005).

Suh becomes the second Nebraska defensive player to be honored, joining Grant Wistrom (1996 and 1997).

And Brown earns his second coach of the year honors after winning it in 2005.

One interesting note that shows the balance in the conference this season is that every team in the league was represented by at least one player on the first-team squad.

Coaches also announced their All-Big 12 teams. They were forbidden from voting for their own players.

Here's a list of the award winners, as selected by the league's coaches:

Coach of the Year: Mack Brown, Texas

Offensive Lineman of the Year: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State

Defensive Lineman of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

Offensive Freshman of the Year: Christine Michael, Texas A&M

Defensive Freshman of the Year: Aldon Smith, Missouri

Special Teams Player of the Year: Brandon Banks, Kansas State

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: David Sims, Iowa State

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State

Defensive Player of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

Offensive Player of the Year: Colt McCoy, Texas

And here's a look at who the coaches chose for their first-team offensive and defensive units.

OFFENSE:

QB: Colt McCoy, Texas

RB: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State

RB: Keith Toston, Oklahoma State

FB: Bryant Ward, Oklahoma State

WR: Dezmon Briscoe, Kansas

WR: Jordan Shipley, Texas

WR: Danario Alexander, Missouri

TE: Jeron Mastrud, Kansas State

OL: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State *

OL: Trent Williams, Oklahoma *

OL: Nick Stringer, Kansas State

OL: Brandon Carter, Texas Tech

OL: Nate Solder, Colorado

K: Grant Ressel, Missouri

KR/PR: Brandon Banks, Kansas State

DEFENSE

DL: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

DL: Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma *

DL: Von Miller, Texas A&M

DL: Brandon Sharpe, Texas Tech

DL: Jared Crick, Nebraska

LB: Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri *

LB: Jesse Smith, Iowa State

LB: Travis Lewis, Oklahoma

DB: Earl Thomas, Texas

DB: Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State

DB: Larry Asante, Nebraska

DB: Prince Amukamara, Nebraska

P: Derek Epperson, Baylor

Note: Bold notations are unanimous selections. Those selections with an asterisk are repeat choices from last season.

I was a little disappointed that the coaches can make a decision to pick a fullback as a specific positional choice and then not designate one of the picks specifically for a center. Every team in the league has a center. Not every team in the Big 12 has a true fullback that plays the majority of his snaps.

Also, it's an age-old pet peeve of mine that they don't break down the defensive choices into specific positions like ends, tackles, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties.

Here's a link to the Big 12's Web site for a complete listing of the first-team, second-team and honorable mention choices.

Big 12 helmet stickers, Week 12

November, 22, 2009
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Here are my weekly choices for my Big 12 helmet stickers:

Oklahoma State running back Keith Toston: Rushed for 172 yards on 30 carries and also caught two passes for 45 yards to spark the Cowboys’ 31-28 triumph over Colorado. Toston scored a pair of touchdowns on a 45-yard TD run and a 47-yard TD pass from third-string quarterback Brandon Weeden to spark the triumph. Toston has topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season, producing 1,130 yards heading into the Bedlam game with Oklahoma on Saturday.

Texas Tech running back Baron Batch: Who said Texas Tech can’t produce top running backs? Batch rushed for a career-high 136 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown and also added seven receptions for 68 yards to spark the Red Raiders’ 41-13 thumping of Oklahoma.

Nebraska safety Larry Asante: Notched a team-high 10 tackles and provided an interception and a clutch forced fumble to pace the Cornhuskers’ 17-3 victory over Kansas State. Asante’s rattling hit caused a fumble by Keithen Valentine at the Nebraska 1, preventing KSU from scoring a touchdown which would have brought it back into the game. His big effort helped boost the Cornhuskers into a Big 12 North title-clinching performance.

Missouri wide receivers Danario Alexander and Jerrell Jackson: Combined for 19 receptions for 315 yards to pace the Tigers’ 34-24 victory over Iowa State. Alexander produced 11 catches for 173 yards and a 63-yard TD grab from Blaine Gabbert, enabling him to set a Missouri single-season receiving yardage record with 1,411. Alexander is second in single-season receiving with 92 receptions. Jackson set career-high totals of eight receptions, 142 yards and a 70-yard TD grab from Gabbert.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy: Passed for 396 yards and four touchdowns to lead Texas to a 51-20 victory over Kansas. In the process, McCoy notched his 43rd career victory as a starting quarterback to give him the NCAA record. He also rushed for 29 yards and even punted. He capped off his memorable evening by shooting off Texas' Big Smokey cannon and banging on the Texas band’s “Big Bertha” bass drum three times before leaving Darrell K. Royal/Texas Memorial Stadium for a final time as a player.

Things to watch when Colorado meets OSU

November, 19, 2009
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Here are some things I'll be watching when Colorado travels to Oklahoma State for tonight's game (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

What I'm looking for from Oklahoma State:

  • Will Zac Robinson be ready to play? Only five days after a vicious head-to-head shot from Texas Tech defensive back Jamar Wall, Robinson’s condition is questionable coming into tonight’s game. Robinson has displayed a lot of toughness and moxie over his career and undoubtedly would like to play on his Senior Night. But the Cowboys likely won’t need him to beat the struggling Buffaloes. Backup Alex Cate would be ready to play if needed and the Cowboys have a consistent running game keyed by Keith Toston, Kendall Hunter and Beau Johnson to carry the team. It might not be really fancy, but that ground game could take a lot of pressure of a first-time starting quarterback -- if it was needed.
  • Oklahoma State’s shot at the national spotlight: Tonight’s game provides the Cowboys and the Big 12 with a rare shot at Thursday night exposure. And a big performance is important as OSU attempts to prove its worthiness for the first BCS at-large berth in school history. If the 8-2 Cowboys can beat Colorado tonight and then defeat Oklahoma in Norman next week, their argument for an at-large berth would be strong. But in order to cement those hopes and likely make a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, Mike Gundy’s team needs a strong performance.
  • Bill Young’s emerging OSU defense: Oklahoma State’s defense under veteran coordinator Bill Young has really made strides in recent weeks. The Cowboys will attempt to handcuff a Colorado offense that has sputtered with the exception of wide receiver Markques Simas, who has produced 14 catches in his last two games. All-Big 12 candidate Perrish Cox, the Big 12’s current defensive player of the week, will get the first shot at stopping Simas. It should be an intriguing battle between an emerging receiver and one of the nation’s most underrated lockdown cornerbacks.
What I’m looking for from Colorado:

  • The play from streaky quarterback Tyler Hansen: Colorado's starting sophomore quarterback appeared to be headed for a redshirt season earlier this year as he rode the bench behind Cody Hawkins. But Hansen got the call midway through the season and has been alternately strong and struggling. He provides the Buffaloes more of a run-pass option than Hawkins and his teammates appear to gravitate to his inspirational leadership. But he’s thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) and will likely face a huge amount of pressure from the underrated OSU defensive front.
  • Can Colorado get anything from its offense? The Buffaloes have sputtered all season long, ranking 105th in total offense, 112th in rushing and 94th in scoring. They will need to produce something from their running game, particularly fumble-prone starter Rodney "Speedy" Stewart to keep OSU honest. And nothing from the past few weeks is indicative they will be able to do that. If they don’t start fast, this one could turn ugly for the Buffaloes.
  • How Dan Hawkins approaches the game: With speculation swirling about potential replacements, the Colorado coach is coaching to keep his job. His teams have been one of the most penalized groups in the country, ranking 119th among the 120 FBS teams. He even had members of his operations staff dress in striped shirts at practice throwing penalty flags. The Buffaloes are at a huge competitive disadvantage as they try to stem a 10-game road losing streak against a team that is fighting for a spot in the BCS. The Buffaloes are the only team in the conference to already be eliminated from bowl contention. It will be a massive coaching effort to keep this group involved if they have some early problems. Can Hawkins keep his team close in the game? We’ll have to see.

Big 12 predictions, Week 12

November, 19, 2009
11/19/09
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The upset bug didn't bite nearly as badly last week. My predictions were better because of it.

Everything turned out for me except for Missouri's surprising beatdown at Kansas State. I thought the Wildcats' perfect home record before last week would give them an edge.

I was wrong.

But the rest of the picks made up for it in a strong week with only one miss.

This will be the complete week of the season. Hopefully, I'm set for a strong finish with these picks.

Oklahoma State 34, Colorado 14: Zac Robinson's playing condition is iffy and the Cowboys have struggled passing the ball very effectively in recent weeks. But it won't matter Thursday night as they will be playing for their hopes as a BCS at-large team before a national television audience. That should help boost OSU's strong running tandem of Keith Toston and Kendall Hunter to have big games, no matter if Robinson plays or not. And look for a big effort from the underrated Oklahoma State defense, which has limited four of its last five opponents to 17 points or less.

Nebraska 28, Kansas State 17: The North Division title is up for grabs in this winner-take-all battle. The Cornhuskers' running game will be tested by Kansas State's gritty defensive front which has overachieved all season. Roy Helu Jr. has been Nebraska's key offensive threat in recent weeks, but Zac Lee needs to continue to build on his strong effort of last week against Kansas to balance the Cornhuskers' attack. Kansas State figures to struggle against the Cornhuskers' defensive front and will need to stay ahead of the chains to keep Grant Gregory from too many long-yardage situations. Bill Snyder will try to dictate the pace by shortening the number of possessions and keeping the game away from the Cornhuskers as much as possible. But Nebraska has too much defense to let the division title slip away.

Texas 45, Kansas 14: It should be an emotional game as Colt McCoy, Sergio Kindle & Co. play their last home game. Look for the Longhorns to try to build on their strong running performance that was developed last week at Baylor with featured ball carriers Cody Johnson and Tre' Newton getting most of the carries. Kansas has been through an emotional wringer this week with all of the discussion about Mark Mangino's coaching methods called into question. Todd Reesing will return home to play in Austin. The Jayhawks showed some improvement last week against Nebraska, but playing the No. 3 Longhorns in Austin will be an entirely different matter.

Oklahoma 28, Texas Tech 24: A rare matchup between these two old rivals without championship ramifications seems a little strange. But the Sooners will be looking to rebound after struggles on the road all season. Landry Jones bounced back with a big game last week, but the biggest story was the return of DeMarco Murray. If he's on, the Red Raiders will have difficulty matching Oklahoma's athleticism on offense. The Red Raiders have questions at quarterback and will be supremely challenged by the Sooners' strong defense. That combination should be enough to enable them to escape from Lubbock with a win.

Texas A&M 27, Baylor 21: Both teams have bowl aspirations in a must-win game for the Bears. Because of that, I expect them to play much better than last week against Texas. They have confidence from beating A&M soundly in Waco last season. But A&M has too manyoffensive weapons this season, starting with Jerrod Johnson and receivers Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu. Art Briles will make this a battle, but the Aggies have too much firepower not to continue their long winning streak over Baylor at Kyle Field, which dates to 1984.

Missouri 34, Iowa State 17: Gary Pinkel's team will be looking to play strong back-to-back conference games for the first time all season. Danario Alexander gives them solid hopes of being able to do that, as well as make some personal history against the smallish ISU secondary. The plucky Cyclones have given up a lot of yards, but have done a good job close to their end zone on defense. Missouri has too many athletic weapons for them as the running game might rebound this week behind Derrick Washington, along with Alexander's sizable contributions. And the Missouri defense came through last week with a big performance in clamping down on Kansas State's running attack. Iowa State has similar offensive aims, which should be a benefit to the Tigers.

Last week: 5-1 (83.3 percent)

Season record: 64-22 (74.4 percent)
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are my helmet stickers for this week. We had to share a couple of them, but they were all richly deserved.

The Nebraska defense: Hard to split this one up among so many producers who held Oklahoma to its lowest point production in the 142-game coaching tenure of Bob Stoops. Matt O’Hanlon provided a team-high 12 tackles and three interceptions, including the clincher with 27 seconds left. Ndamukong Suh was all over the field with a pass deflection, four tackles and a blocked kick. Phillip Dillard had eight tackles, including two tackles for losses, a sack and an interception. The entire defense divvied up five interceptions and 12 pass deflections by 10 different players in a stellar effort that keeps their North Division title hopes alive.

Baylor quarterback Nick Florence: Passed for a school-record 427 yards and three touchdowns and added another running touchdown to spark the Bears’ 40-32 upset victory over Missouri for their first conference victory of the season. Florence completed 11 of his first 12 passes and finished 32 for 43 in passing, breaking the school record of 412 passing yards set by Blake Szymanski in 2007 against Rice.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and wide receiver Jordan Shipley: The two roommates shared one of the most memorable efforts in Texas football history to spark the Longhorns’ 35-3 victory over UCF. Shipley snagged 11 passes for a school-record 273 yards, including an 88-yard TD toss from McCoy. The big effort might have catapulted McCoy back into serious Heisman contention as completed 33 of 42 passes for 470 yards and two touchdowns, including a 14-yard strike to James Kirkendoll. It was the second-highest passing effort in school history, trailing only Major Applewhite’s 473-yard outing in the 2001 Holiday Bowl.

Oklahoma State running back Keith Toston: Rushed for a career-best 206 yards and three touchdowns to spark the Cowboys’ 34-8 victory over Iowa State. Toston scored on touchdown runs of 2, 17 and 1 yards. Toston punctuated his big day with a 69-yard run in the fourth quarter that marked his career-long rush.

Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas: Rushed for 24 times for a career-high 185 yards and a 5-yard touchdown to spark the Wildcats’ 17-10 victory over Kansas that keeps them in first place in the North Division. Thomas topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season early in the third quarter and finished with 1,087 yards for the season. He now has five 100-yard rushing games this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are 10 things I’m looking forward to watching in Saturday’s games across the Big 12.

1. Can Mack Brown continue his remarkable winning streak against Oklahoma State? Since coming to Texas, Brown has won 11 straight games against Oklahoma State. For whatever reason, the Longhorns always seem to make the play they need to make to beat the Cowboys. Will this winning streak continue again this season, or are the Cowboys finally due to spring an upset that would turn the South Division race and the BCS on its ear?

2. How will Oklahoma State’s offensive replacements fare against Texas? Keith Toston and Hubert Anyiam have emerged as key contributors for Oklahoma State since Dez Bryant was lost to an NCAA suspension and Kendall Hunter to an ankle injury. Can that group continue its strong recent performance against a Texas defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in the four major statistical categories -- rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense? And will we see Hunter, who is rounding back into shape after missing the last five games.

3. Can surprising Kansas State continue its strong recent surge at Oklahoma? Despite stinging criticism from coach Bill Snyder for their struggles in the second half in last week’s win against Colorado, Kansas State unexpectedly sits alone in first place in the North Division. Will Grant Gregory, Brandon Banks and Daniel Thomas shake off that lethargy and produce some big plays against an Oklahoma defense that still is one of the best in the country?

4. DeMarco Murray’s return for Oklahoma. After missing last week’s victory over Kansas with a bum ankle, Oklahoma’s most explosive runner and receiver is expected to be back for the Sooners' game against Kansas State. The Sooners looked like they didn’t miss him last week against Kansas. But assuredly, Murray could fill a vital role for them against an underrated KSU defense.

5. Will Seth Doege get his first career start at quarterback for Texas Tech? Reports seem to be pointing that the third-string freshman will start Saturday against Kansas. The Red Raiders are intent on boosting offensive production after losing to Texas A&M last week. Doege, or whoever starts, will be facing a Kansas defense that has struggled this season, ranking 100th in pass defense after allowing eight TD passes in the last four games.

6. How will the Texas Tech defense react to the pointed criticism from Mike Leach? After being gashed for 321 rushing yards by Texas A&M last week -- more than they had allowed in their previous three games combined -- the Red Raiders were called out in unflattering terms by their coach. The Red Raiders shouldn’t face nearly the test in the trenches from Kansas, but Todd Reesing and his fine group of receivers still could make this a long day at Jones AT&T Stadium for Tech’s secondary if the Red Raiders' pass rush can't get more push this week.

7. Iowa State’s bid for another stunning road upset. The Cyclones made history last week by winning at Nebraska as they forced a record eight turnovers in their first victory there since 1977. The excitement of their postgame celebration has already become a YouTube staple across the cyberspace. Now, they travel to Texas A&M where they will meet an A&M team that had a similarly stunning upset last week when it won at Texas Tech. The Cyclones can qualify for their first bowl game since 2005 by winning, but will be tested by A&M’s emerging group of offensive weapons.

8. Can Texas A&M keep up its stunning rushing success? Only a week after producing minus-13 rushing yards at Kansas State, the Aggies exploded for 321 rushing yards and six touchdowns against Texas Tech. Can Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael continue that success against an opportunistic Cyclone defense that bends but does not break and ranks tied for 14th in turnover margin?

9. How will Colorado and Missouri react to the expected mushy conditions on Saturday? With more than two feet of snow expected to pile up on the front range the next couple of days, which team will be favored on the sloppy track? Will it be Missouri’s pass-heavy attack or Colorado’s rushing game that has proved to be a little plodding against Big 12 teams on drier turf?

10. Will Bo Pelini’s recent attention to his offense result in more production for the Cornhuskers? Pelini told reporters earlier this week that he’s offering more advice on offense. It comes after Nebraska has produced only six touchdowns in the last 16 quarters, with four of those coming in a 15-minute span at Missouri. The Cornhuskers have a chance to build some confidence against a struggling Baylor team and a victory would boost them right back into the North title race. The upcoming game might be the best chance for Nebraska to get quarterbacks Zac Lee and Cody Green some playing time.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

In some quarters, his image remains framed by his celebrated postgame outburst more than two years ago.

 
 Tim Heitman/US PRESSWIRE
 Mike Gundy has the Cowboys at 6-1 despite being forced to replace some of his top playmakers.
But Mike Gundy, now 42, has moved way past the popular perception of that tirade to become the best coach in the Big 12 to this point of the season.

His Oklahoma State team entered the season with more expectations than at any time in the program’s recent history. Those hopes only grew after the team's victory over Georgia in the season opener boosted them to No. 5 in the nation.

But even after a loss to Houston in the following game that turned on two tipped passes, Gundy has persevered over a unique set of challenges unlike any he has ever faced during his coaching tenure.

The Cowboys have overcome the loss of Kendall Hunter, the 2008 Big 12 leading rusher who hasn’t played since Sept. 12 because of an ankle injury.

Dez Bryant, the program’s preseason All-American candidate at wide receiver and punt returner, played in only three games before he was ruled ineligible over his dalliance with former NFL standout Deion Sanders.

The Cowboys learned Tuesday that Bryant won’t return this season, just adding another obstacle to challenging for their first Big 12 South title.

“We hope that our plan and our scheme is far enough along that we can have some variation [in players],” Gundy told reporters. “The thing you always worry about as a coach is, ‘Is your plan for the week good enough and then can your players step up and make some plays?’

The Cowboys have done just that since the loss of Bryant and Hunter, two of their top three playmakers.

Keith Toston has emerged as a consistent producer in Hunter's featured back role, producing 606 rushing yards to rank fourth in the conference.

Bryant caught a higher percentage of his team's completions than any receiver in the conference last season. But in his absence Hubert Anyiam has become the featured receiver, leading the team with 25 receptions. Seven other players have caught at least eight passes this season as the Cowboys have become more balanced without Bryant.

Quarterback Zac Robinson has been the constant, keeping the team together despite all of the turmoil and personnel losses.

But Robinson admits that the notion of playing so well without Bryant and Hunter would have been a little stunning to him if he had considered it before the season started.

“I would have thought you were crazy,” Robinson said. “With some of the guys who are stepping up and producing for us, some started as third-string players. It’s been great to see them step up. At the beginning of the year, who would have thought they would have done this? But it’s a tribute to their hard work.”

Those personnel losses are only a start. Gundy kicked off wide receiver Damian Davis and Jeremy Broadway for breaking team rules. He also suspended fellow wide receiver Bo Bowling indefinitely this spring while he faces charges of possessing marijuana and anabolic steroids.

Projected starting tight end Jamal Mosley left the team just before the start of the season amid a police investigation that has yet to produce any results.

And Gundy’s defense has been wracked with injuries. Cornerback Perrish Cox and defensive end Jeremiah Price both have missed substantial time this season.

"At some point, you’d like to not talk about adversity and talk about the future, but that’s become a topic,” Gundy said.

Gundy's perseverance has caught the attention of Texas coach Mack Brown.

"I really admire Mike and their staff for what they've done," Brown said. "They just move forward. They don't talk about it. Anyiam has got 19 receptions the last two games, so he has stepped in for Dez.

"Keith Toston was an alternating back anyway, and he's done a great job for Kendall Hunter. I think Mike and that staff have done one of the great coaching jobs this year in the country."

The Cowboys are now 6-1 and 3-0 in the Big 12 South, a half-game behind the Longhorns. They are 14th in the latest BCS poll and have all of their goals still in front of them.

Gundy credits his team for its resiliency.

“When you have as many off-the-field distractions and injuries or things come up that we have this year, you have to have leaders other than the coaches,” Gundy said. “That’s just the chemistry of your team and they enjoy being around each other and enjoy practicing. So no matter what happens, they’ll buy in and go play hard.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Paul Rhoads stung Nebraska with a fake punt, sparking the Cyclones 9-7 lead over Nebraska late in the first half.

After the Cyclones had been stymied at their own 33, punter Mike Brandtner rushed for 20 yards and a first down.

Jerome Tiller and Jake Williams then hooked up on a 47-yard touchdown on the next play. It was remarkably similar to the defensive gaffes that marked the end of the Cornhuskers' loss at Virginia Tech.

The Cyclones will be gunning for their first victory in Lincoln since 1977. It won't be easy, but they appear to be gaining confidence by the moment.

Kansas State took advantage of a fumble by Tyler Hansen deep in Colorado territory to add another field goal and go up over the Buffaloes, 13-6. Daniel Thomas has accounted for most of the Wildcats' offense with 89 yards.

And Oklahoma State appears to be cruising for a potential game for first place against Texas next week in Stillwater as the Cowboys are thumping Baylor 17-0 late in the first half.

The Cowboys have piled up 243 yards as Zac Robinson has torched a soft Baylor secondary for 132 yards and Keith Toston has rushed for 71 yards on nine carries.

I'm off to Columbia, but I'll check back in as soon as I get to the stadium.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are 10 things I’m looking forward to seeing in Saturday’s Big 12 games:

1. Will Texas’ run defense continue its tormenting ways against Big 12 teams? The Longhorns have allowed opponents only 29 rushing yards in their last four games (7.3 yards per game) and a 0.3 yard-per-carry average. How will the Longhorns fare against Missouri, whose running game has been an early disappointment and has produced only 79 yards per game in its last three games? It will be important for the Tigers to try to establish at least a little bit of continuity to keep Blaine Gabbert from having to rely too much on passing. Against Texas, that's going to be tough.

2. Missouri’s resiliency. The Tigers have been an early disappointment with two early losses starting the season that have dropped them into the North Division cellar. They will be big underdogs to Texas as they try to avoid their first 0-3 start in conference play since 2002.

3. Landry Jones returns to the starting lineup. Sam Bradford is likely out for the season, leaving Jones in his place for Saturday's game at Kansas. Jones was better than expected in his previous three starts, notching a 2-1 record and tying the school record with six touchdown passes against Tulsa. The Jayhawks have a formidable pass rush (3.17 sacks per game), but are susceptible to patient passers who are willing to pick their spots. Jones falls into that category.

4. Mark Mangino against coaching mentor Bob Stoops. Mangino was the offensive coordinator on Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship team before taking the job at Kansas in 2002. During his previous matchups against Stoops, Mangino is 0-3 and never played the Sooners closer than 14 points. Things might be different Saturday as the Jayhawks get the injury-ravaged Sooners on their home field for the first time since 2001.

5. Kansas State’s rejuvenated pass rush against Colorado. The Wildcats produced six sacks last week against Texas A&M as their defensive pressure served as the key defensive factor for them against the Aggies. Earlier in the season, the Wildcats had produced six other sacks in the first six games. The Wildcats have to continue to dial up that pressure, but it will be a difficult challenge against elusive Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen.

6. After all those early stumbles, could Colorado really be a North challenger? And is Kansas State really a division challenger? We’ll find that out when the Buffaloes travel to Kansas State. Kansas State made a turnaround of 100 points in two weeks after losing by 52 points to Texas Tech and then beating Texas A&M by 48 points the following week -- the biggest two-week turnaround in victory margin in Big 12 history. That run has pushed the Wildcats into first place in the North over three other teams, including the Buffaloes who are a half-game behind. The Wildcats can continue their unexpected run to title contention by winning on Saturday in Manhattan.

7. Who starts at quarterback for Nebraska? After Zac Lee struggled last week and Cody Green orchestrated a late touchdown drive, coach Bo Pelini has thrown competition open for the position. Green’s running and passing skills could give the Cornhuskers a different element as they meet plucky Iowa State. Look for both quarterbacks to play, but it will be interesting to see who gets the majority of snaps and if Pelini makes a change in his starter in the middle of the season.

8. Will Austen Arnaud and Alexander Robinson be back in the starting lineup for Iowa State? Both Arnaud (bruised hand) and Robinson (strained groin muscle) were hobbled in the Cyclones' victory last week over Baylor. Both need to be close to 100 percent to enable the Cyclones to have any hope of claiming their first victory in Lincoln since 1977 -- a streak of 15 straight games.

9. Who will be Texas Tech’s starting quarterback against Texas A&M? Texas Tech sensation Steven Sheffield sustained a foot injury that reportedly will keep him out of the lineup for Saturday’s game in Lubbock against Texas A&M. Coach Mike Leach has only said his starter will be a game-time decision and hasn't released who he is considering as a starter. But if Sheffield can’t go, Leach could turn to original starter Taylor Potts who has missed the last two complete games after sustaining a concussion against New Mexico. Or he might be forced to start third-string freshman Seth Doege.

10. Keith Toston emerges as the league's best backup running back. Toston has been a strong producer for the Cowboys since taking over the starting position when Kendall Hunter went down with a foot injury earlier this season. Toston has averaged 94 yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry and scored four rushing touchdowns since then. He should have the opportunity for a big night again against Baylor, which ranks 100th nationally against the rush.

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