With the running game in order, the No. 18 Oklahoma State Cowboys have to take another look at their passing attack.
Thanks to a breakout performance by junior running back Desmond Roland, who rushed for 219 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries in his first career start in Saturday's 58-27 victory at Iowa State, the Cowboys appear to have solidified a part of their offense that had been struggling.
But following a subpar passing performance, Oklahoma State (6-1, 3-1 Big 12) is still searching for the right formula heading into its showdown next weekend at No. 15 Texas Tech (7-1, 4-1 Big 12).
And even though senior Clint Chelf replaced sophomore J.W. Walsh midway through Oklahoma State's 24-10 win over TCU on Oct. 19 and started against Iowa State, the quarterback situation remains unsettled.
"We need to be a better passing team, period, to give ourselves a chance to win this weekend," coach Mike Gundy said. "We're going to play both guys. Hopefully, we'll have a plan going in and then we'll just go by 'feel' and see how the game goes."
Against Iowa State, Chelf completed just 10 of 26 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown, while also tossing an interception, although he did display an underrated ability to run the ball, rushing for a career-high 85 yards on nine carries.
Walsh had always been considered the superior runner, possessing impressive speed and mobility, and until Roland surpassed him Saturday, had been the squad's leading rusher. But Chelf proved that he could also be a running threat.
"I think there's a perception out there, and I mentioned this weeks ago, that I think Clint is as nifty a runner as J.W. is — he may not be as fast — but I don't know if anyone believed me on that," Gundy said.
Gundy noted that Iowa State's defensive alignment seemed designed to minimize the Cowboys' passing efficiency, and even though it did, that approach allowed Oklahoma State to counter with the run. And if that happens again, he intends to take advantage of it.
"We need to get better as a team and be more effective throwing the football, but if we play teams that are going to play two safeties deep, then there should be more rushing yards for us than passing yards based on the way the defense lines up," Gundy said. "I'm guessing, from the way they played, that they were watching tape and thought we couldn't run the ball so they didn't have to worry about that - that's just an outsider looking in."
And while Walsh delivered some outstanding efforts earlier in the season to initially seize the starter's job, he and the overall passing game have been inconsistent over the past several weeks. So when he began the TCU game by throwing two interceptions on the Cowboys' first three possessions (ending up with 9 of 18 passing for 115 yards), Chelf replaced him.
In seven quarters of action since, Chelf has completed just 38 percent of his passes (20 of 53) for 256 yards with one TD and two interceptions.
Gundy also pointed out that more than just the quarterback's performance dictates whether or not the passing game is successful.
"We haven't been very good in protection and our route-running has been good, not great," Gundy said. "There have been times where our quarterbacks have been hit right before they release the ball or right after they release the ball, which has an effect on the throwing game. There are times when the receiver's not at the spot they're supposed to be and times when the throws have been poor. And prior to the last game, we had quite a few drops. When you tie all that together, you end up with just a very average passing game."
No matter which QB ends up with the majority of the snaps on Saturday, offensive players remain confident in whichever one is out there.
"It will come. We're not worried about it," said senior receiver Charlie Moore of that elusive passing success. "We had a great game this week on the ground. We know that any game we can put up huge numbers, so maybe it'll be back this weekend or maybe we'll rush for 250 yards again. Either way, we'll just be happy to get a win."