TULSA — Tulsa’s Zach Smith put up more passing yards in a football game last week than any TU quarterback since Dane Evans in 2016.
“It felt more like us,” said TU coach Philip Montgomery. “I’ll say it that way.”
But that was a 21-of-28, 283-yard, 1-TD performance against San Jose State.
This week, the Golden Hurricane faces a different challenge when Oklahoma State comes to Chapman Stadium.
In OSU’s first two games, the Cowboys have allowed just 438 yards passing with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 51.4 percent of their throws, and their efficiency rating is 117.96.
It’s a small sample size, and Oregon State had a far better performance in Corvallis than McNeese did in Stillwater, but the reality is that the Cowboys’ secondary is experienced, athletic and active and will be a challenge for Smith and the Tulsa offense.
“Yeah, it’s going to be,” Montgomery said. “ … They’re battle-tested corners and our guys outside have got to do a good job of being great route runners and then creating separation when they can find it.”
OSU corners A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams each have started 28 consecutive games in their careers, most among Cowboy defenders. Green has earned first-team All-Big 12 accolades. Safety Kolby Peel played in every game as a true freshman, including four starts, and saved the bowl win over Missouri with a clutch tackle. Safety Jarrick Bernard played in all 13 games last year (nine starts) and was voted the team’s outstanding newcomer. And safety Tre Sterling, who played in every game last year but made his first career start two weeks ago at Oregon State, leads Cowboy DBs with 10 tackles.
“They always have a couple guys in the secondary that are extremely talented,” Montgomery said. “Their corners play extremely well, but so do all five of them back there. So we’re going to have to do a good job as far as just manipulating our routes and making sure that we’re on the right trend there. We got to do some things as far as helping each other. Hopefully, formationally, we can do some things to help each other get open.”
Tulsa got nothing going offensively in its opener at Michigan State. The Spartans have one of college football’s top defenses, and the Golden Hurricane was held to minus-73 rushing yards — a record for both TU and Michigan State. The statistical total also includes quarterback sacks and wayward center snaps, but TU’s leading rusher in East Lansing was Shamari Brooks, who carried six times and netted zero yards.
Things were quite a bit better in San Jose. Brooks totaled 140 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, and after backup Corey Taylor was injured, redshirt freshman T.K. Wilkerson contributed 92 yards and two TDs on 15 carries. Sam Crawford caught nine passes for 137 yards.
“They put a little running game together and started throwing the ball better and played considerably better, in my opinion, in the second (game),” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “Michigan State is a difficult stadium to play offense in if you’re the visiting team. They’ve been successful on defense for a long time there and I think that was a tough time for them.”
As much as anything, Tulsa’s offense got better last week because of improved quarterback play. Smith, a transfer from Baylor who redshirted last season, was 16-of-27 for 153 yards with a TD and an interception against the first Spartans, but what really stood out was his indecision and lack of pocket awareness. He held the ball too long, wasn’t processing the defense well and was sacked six times. Against the second Spartans last week in San Jose, he was hardly touched.
“I think more than anything he hadn’t played in a while, so we’re still kind of knocking off some rust,” Montgomery said. “He hasn’t been in this offense in a long time. And, so it’s kind of the little nuances of being in this.
“Especially in the second half, I thought he really started allowing the offense to work for him; him taking advantage of some of the opportunities that he had. Had some of those in the first half we just didn’t take advantage of. In the second half I thought he really stepped up and started really spreading the ball around to a lot of different folks. When we started doing this, our run game opened up even more and so that balance and that give-and-take between the run and the pass, I think he’s seeing how all of that is meshing together again.
“And then just some little things. He did another good job of staying in the pocket and finding receivers and working progressions. He made a couple of really good third-down throws on some crossing-route stuff that I thought he performed really well on. And then he stepped up and scrambled a couple times to keep drives alive. That’s obviously not his strongest suit, but he is definitely able to do that for us and it was good to see him kind of take control.
“The balance was there, the explosive plays, at times, were there. I thought our tempo was really good. We ended up in some third-and-longs but converted on a lot of those. Ended up in some third-and-shorts and fourth-and-shorts and converted on those. So that’s the kind of style we want to play, that’s what we’re the best at. We gotta continue working towards that trend each and every week.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.