Beginning as a much anticipated non-conference game, suddenly Oklahoma State’s matchup with the Pitt Panthers has a much larger gravity to it. After last week’s unbelievable loss to Central Michigan (30–27), the Cowboys (1–1) are looking to right the ship in their final tuneup before Big 12 play. Pitt (2–0) comes to Stillwater fresh off a 42–39 win over rival Penn State.
As both teams look to further prepare for the grind that is conference season, here are a few things to track during this matchup.
This is the first meeting between these teams and both come in with very different offensive styles. Pitt uses a powerful offensive line to anchor a ground game that ranks 44 in the nation (213.5/game). Oklahoma State is still searching for their run game as evident by their meager 97.0/game (116 in nation).
The reason this could play big in the outcome of the game is ball control. Pitt averages over 32 minutes/game in time of possession, and keeping the ball out of Oklahoma State’s pass-happy hands may prove vital.
Cowboy QB Mason Rudolph must improve upon his subpar performance against Central Michigan. He finished the game 28–44 for 288 and never hit his targets consistently. As Oklahoma State has thus far shown an inability to run effectively, Rudolph being on-point will be essential for an Oklahoma State victory.
In the other huddle, Pitt’s James Conner will be one to watch. Last week, he rushed for 117 yards and scored twice; officially starting his comeback tour after missing 2015 with a knee injury and Hodgkin lymphoma. Conner is only the second Panther, behind Tony Dorsett, to score 40 career touchdowns. If Pitt is able to get Conner going early, it could be a long day for the Cowboy defense.
Defensively, both teams appear to be similarly strong. Although both teams have played somewhat average offensive opponents, the front seven for both appears to be very effective. Pitt is 30 in the country in total defense, while Oklahoma State checks in at 37.
Both teams are in the top 20 in rushing defense (Pitt: 11, OSU: 19), while each gives up over 220/game through the air. Considering strength against strength, it would appear the Cowboys may have a slight advantage with their passing game, but that would depend on their offensive line having effective pass protection.
Although senior Pitt QB Nathan Peterman is not much of a big-game passing threat (Career high of 262 yards), he could challenge an Oklahoma State secondary that was picked apart last week, by Cooper Rush.
Both defenses have been opportunistic in the turnover game, especially Oklahoma State, who has scored a defensive touchdown in each of their first two games.
Oklahoma State has had difficulty forcing touchbacks in 2016 and this could prove to be pivotal versus Pitt and speedster Quadree Henderson. The sophomore leads the nation with a 53.5 yard return average, including a 96 yard return for a touchdown in week one, and an 84 yard return last week against Penn State.
Pitt placekicker, Chris Blewitt has yet to connect on a field goal in 2016, but the senior is definitely capable. Likewise, Cowboy placekicker, Ben Grogan, moved into third on the all-time scoring list last week. He has several game-winners over his career and can be called upon in late-game situations.
The Game Changer — Third Down
Last week, Oklahoma State’s defense allowed 8 of 15 third conversions. In several instances in the second half, these conversions led to big momentum shifts for Central Michigan. It will be vital for the Cowboy front seven to get pressure in the backfield and eliminate big third down conversions. If the Cowboy defense can get off the field early and often,that might give the offense just enough rhythm to get going.
If Mason Rudolph and his receivers can get in a groove, look for the Cowboys to hold serve at home with a nice momentum churning victory.