Through the Fire: An Eye On Stillwater

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If only unbridled enthusiasm were directly proportional to victories ...

On an afternoon when David Bailiff expressed his love for his job, the Owls began the process of preparing for No. 16 Oklahoma State, the very same Cowboys who were exposed at Boone Pickens Stadium last Saturday afternoon by the Houston Cougars and subsequently dropped 11 places in the national rankings. While the Owls attempt to pick up the pieces from their second humiliating loss on the season, the Cowboys are looking for a team to obliterate in an attempt to regain their preseason swagger. The Owls, it seems, are the perfect opponent.

Despite those facts, Bailiff isn't deterred. He continues to talk of remaining upbeat and focused and delving fully into the ongoing task of improving the Owls. Yes the Pokes will be angry and their fans ravenous, but Bailiff seems intent on ignoring the sizable odds against success. The Owls have dropped 16 consecutive contests against teams representing BCS conferences, losing those games by an average score of 46-14. Bailiff, to his full credit, remains positive.

"You'll see us going to Stillwater this week with a great attitude. We're never going to quit," Bailiff said. "We're going to keep fighting and get better.

"They (the Owls' offensive unit) know they're young; we're going to get better every snap we take. They realize that. We have the 10th-hardest schedule in the country; they know that. And they know if we keep working hard great things are going to happen for us. That's what they expect and that's what we expect. I've got to keep them going and upbeat, and let them see what the future holds. And our future is very bright."

Can the Owls get better quickly enough to upset Oklahoma State? And if not, can they play well enough to develop a modicum of confidence for their long-awaited home opener the following Saturday against Vanderbilt, another automatic qualifier? Few expected the Owls to beat Texas Tech, but it was desirous for them to perform better than they did against UAB a week earlier. Five hundred and sixty yards and eight touchdowns later those dreams were deferred, and given the Pokes' offensive prowess, gratification might be delayed yet again.

Which hole in the dike should Bailiff plug first? By his own admission the offense lacks an identity, and with starting tailback Tyler Smith sporting a walking boot to protect turf toe on his right foot, the Owls might be forced to go with someone else at tailback in Stillwater. The rotation at receiver remains in flux with senior Corbin Smiter having yet to snag a pass, senior Toren Dixon held to one catch for nine yards in Lubbock, and the presumed boost by the younger receivers having yet to materialize. The three-headed monster at tight end, perceived to be a strength of the offense, has combined to produce 10 catches, 143 yards and one TD.

As far as continuity at quarterback, don't hold your breath. Bailiff acknowledged that he will continue rotating both quarterbacks, fifth-year senior John Thomas Shepherd and sophomore Nick Fanuzzi, for at least another week. He also noted that his quarterbacks failed to handle the Red Raiders' blitz, either holding the ball too long and contributing to the six sacks allowed or not passing in the lanes where the pressure originated. Those miscues, combined with the continued sharing of reps, will only hinder the process of establishing an offensive identity.

"We've got to get consistent at that position," Bailiff said. "Once we get that consistency, we're going to be OK."

The Owls would be well served to change their defensive identity. No amount of cockeyed perspective can hide the fact that the Owls have surrendered 1,076 yards and 99 points in two games. They rank last in Conference USA is practically every defensive team statistic, and considering their experience in the secondary, their pass defense (364.5 yards/game) and pass defense efficiency (185.1) numbers are appalling. After harassing Tech quarterback Taylor Potts with regularity in the first half, the Owls spit the bit in the second as the Raiders scored touchdowns on six successive possessions to turn an 11-point lead into a blowout.

So, why has the secondary struggled so mightily over the first two contests?

"It's little technique things," sophomore safety Travis Bradshaw said. "A lot of us not keeping eyes in the right place, that's hurting us. We've just got to be fundamentally sound and really focused on the details of the game. That's going to be key, especially with the speed of the Oklahoma State receivers and their athleticism. We've really got to be perfect in every aspect."

Perfection is an awful lot to ask for. Perhaps the Owls should lower their standards to a more modest level in light of how far from perfect they have been thus far. The last thing this team needs is a repeat of the fiasco in Lubbock, where an inspired first-half effort was followed by a distressful collapse that seemed to reflect a team boiling over with frustration and confusion.

Or perhaps Bradshaw outlined the true key to success. The Owls should keep their heads up.

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One idea tossed out over at the Parliament is that the coaching staff is editing the playbook to keep things simple for the offense and that is hampering development and results. Any thoughts on this? Could the offense open things up more? Or have the opposing defenses blown things up too much to make a difference what's being called?

Owl-88: Valid theory for Texas Tech, for with the line struggling, the quarterbacks making poor decisions, and the receivers regressing, the offensive staff scaled back the play-calling. UAB was simply an unmitigated disaster. Can I call it that? - MK

Perfection is a great goal, but we also need to be prepared to bounce back if something goes wrong.

Just watched Gundy's presser. He is well composed and thoughtful behind the podium. He also offered interesting insight into Dez Bryant's at times inconsistent play. It was a stark contrast to that outburst he had a couple years ago re: Bobby Reid comments.

I think the Owls are going to face a very focused and motivated team this Saturday. Instead of having the "upset" goal or mantra throughout this week as was the case last week. I'd have the team focus on improving the little things that Bailiff keeps mentioning, and perhaps not even concern themselves with the larger picture. No turnovers, convert 3rd downs, tackle well, and defend the ball in the air.

Talon: I'm with you. Had an in-depth conversation with Jason Washington last night on the intricate details of playing corner properly. The Owls' ultimate goal is to win every game, but their secondary focus should be improving technique and fundamentals. It's so very important, especially when competing against comparable competition. The one thing the Owls can take from these so-called body bag games is a pride in playing the game the right way, no matter the foe. - MK

MK, I think you (or perhaps it was someone else covering the Owls, nevertheless) mentioned that we may be seeing some more from some younger players getting more PT as the staff searches for playmakers on offense and defense.

So far watching this week of practice, who do you think is moving up the depth chart?

Talon: It doesn't look good for J. Hill (concussion) or T. Smith (turf toe) this weekend, so you should see more of Trey Briggs and Charles Ross (at least I hope so on the latter). Was chatting with David Berken yesterday at practice and he pointed out this foursome playing receiver/tight end: Dixon, Smiter, Clark and McDonald. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing that grouping together often in Stillwater. Also, noticed that Gaines was getting some reps with the 1s. I know for a fact that the staff is high on his potential, so you might see more of him too. - MK

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