Sep 28, 2019; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys running back Chuba Hubbard (30) runs for a first down as Kansas State Wildcats defensive back Kevion McGee (7) closes in during the second half at Boone Pickens Stadium. Oklahoma State won 26-13. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — They’re wounded, they’re wobbling and they’ve fallen three times in the past four games.
And in a way, a recent mix of misfortunate for the Oklahoma State Cowboys makes them more dangerous, not less.
In short: It’s unlikely a team as stacked with top-end talent as the Cowboys — particularly at skill positions — will continue to descend downward.
Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said as much Tuesday in advance of Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. Big 12 (and Homecoming) matchup with the Orange and Black at a soon-to-be sold out Jack Trice Stadium.
“You turn on the film and the sheer ability (of Oklahoma State’s players) jumps off the film,” said Campbell, whose Cyclones (5-2, 3-1) seek their 11th straight October win. “The receiving corps is led by one of the most dynamic receivers (Tylan Wallace) in college football, the running game (Chuba Hubbard), then you see this super talented quarterback (Spencer Sanders); you talk about a young player growing into his own — you almost see his evolution happening. He has elite arm strength, elite escapability, making elite plays with great consistency. It’s as dynamic of an offense as we’ve faced so far. They’re really impressive. When you have elite play makers, it gives you an ability to overcome a bad bounce here or a bad situation there and continue to put your team in a good situation to be successful. They’ve been able to do that.”
The Cowboys (4-3, 1-3) are tied for 123rd nationally in turnover margin at minus-nine. They’ve turned it over eight times in their past two losses and have gone three and out on offense 11 times in those games.
Still, Hubbard, Wallace and Sanders do indeed serve as elite threats.
Hubbard leads the nation in rushing yards (1,265) and rushing touchdowns (15) — among several other running game-based categories.
Wallace’s 772 receiving yards rank sixth nationally and he’s scored seven touchdowns.
Sanders, a redshirt freshman, has thrown for 1,490 yards and rushed for 457. He’s scored a combined 13 touchdowns (11 passing), but has also thrown nine interceptions.
So the Cowboys are at a crossroads, but longtime coach Mike Gundy expects them to choose the correct route back to success.
“We’re not in a corner,” Gundy told reporters, according to The Oklahoman, this week. “I have been cornered before, but I don’t feel that way now. I’m good. I’m excited. I like the potential. I like the youth. I like the direction we’re going.”
Vegas doesn’t — at least not this weekend. The surging Cyclones are 10.5-point favorites as of Tuesday afternoon, according to OddsShark, and seek their program record-extending sixth straight conference win at home.
ISU is on a three-game Big 12 winning streak fueled by its always-stout defense and an explosive offense that averages 37.1 points per game, which ranks 20th nationally.
Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy leads the Big 12 in passing (312.1 yards per game) and is slotted seventh in early Heisman Trophy voting according to ESPN.
The sophomore standout has helped the offense score on 13 of 16 fourth quarter possessions over the past five games — and 11 of those scoring plays have resulted in touchdowns.
“I think a lot of that stems from the mindset of our quarterback,” Campbell said of ISU’s ability to finish drives. “He’s a guy (who) wants to win the football game and he’s kind of got that drive and that moxie to understand the situation. Also, be smart enough to not put the team in a dangerous situation, but to be courageous enough to make the hard play and make the tough play. I think when you have some of that moxie, that really helps everybody around you know how you want to play offensive football, so I think a lot of it stems from him.”
Still, Oklahoma State’s offense is overdue for a renaissance — and with Hubbard leading the way, could prove particularly troublesome, whether truly “cornered” or not.
“I would hope our fan base wouldn’t be naive to the fact that this is one of the best teams in the Big 12 right now,” Campbell said on his weekly Tuesday podcast with CycloneFanatic publisher Chris Williams. “I think for us, we know what’s coming in here. … It’s a team that’s fighting for everything. It wants to stay in the race. It wants to stay alive. We’ll get their best shot, for sure.”
ISU’s sacks leader O’Rien Vance has missed the past game and a half after being banged up in the win at West Virginia, but Campbell said the talented linebacker has been practicing with the team this week and could return to the lineup.
“From a health standpoint we’re looking really good,” Campbell said. “The only guy who missed last week was (Vance) and he was back out at practice yesterday. I’m really hopeful he’ll be able to play this week. He’s looked good this week.”
Campbell said if there’s one area the Cyclones need to shore up its the kicking game. In the past two weeks, starting placekicker Connor Assalley has handled shorter field goals and PATs — but one went awry in last week’s win at Texas Tech. Brayden Narveson has kicked field goal of longer than 40 yards, but missed two last week after nailing a 45-yarder at West Virginia.
“I think the area for us that’s still left out there is just the consistency in our kicking game and I feel like we’re really close to that,” Campbell said. “I think we’ve had some really positive moments and we’ve had a couple moments where you feel like, ‘Man, we just want to be a little bit better and more consistent there (than we’ve been),’ but we’re really fortunate to have some great kids who are working really hard at it.”