STILLWATER – Mason Rudolph to James Washington became a norm for Oklahoma State coaches, players and fans to witness on Saturdays.
Arguably the top pass-catch combo in OSU history, opposing defenses found no way to defend the connection. The duo was so dynamic, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted them in the second (Washington) and third (Rudolph) rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.
The Cowboys (3-1 overall, 0-1 Big 12) had the most lightning connection in college football the past three seasons. Anytime No. 28 was running deep, it was more than likely he would end up in the end zone with the ball.
It was also a big key for OSU’s offense. Something that has been missing this season, gone with the stars who ran it to perfection time and time again.
The then-No. 15 Cowboys were exposed Saturday in a 41-17 home loss against Texas Tech, its first against the Red Raiders since 2008. Quarterback Taylor Cornelius completed less than 50 percent of his passes, and only one of those completions went for more than 30 yards.
Through four games, the Cowboys have completed only one pass of at least 60 yards. Against South Alabama, junior wideout Tyron Johnson caught a 60-yard pass on a 15-yard crossing route before nearly outrunning the defense for a score.
The next longest catch is redshirt freshman running back Chuba Hubbard’s 54-yard score in the season opener. He caught a swing pass before dicing his way through defenders and into the end zone.
Neither of OSU’s longest pass plays this season were deep completions. Johnson and Hubbard were the reason for the big plays, making defenders whiff before swiftly navigating down the field. OSU coach Mike Gundy recognized the lack of a downfield passing game could occur this season.
“I think (it hampers us) some,” Gundy said. “At the start of the year, everybody knew we didn’t have James. James is an unbelievable deep threat. You’re going to fall off some in that area. That’s not a surprise to us.”
Cornelius’ biggest weakness this season has been his inability to accurately throw deep passes. His longest throw on Saturday was a 31-yard gain to Tylan Wallace. Often times, his throw are either wide and out of bounds or land on the turf, 5 yards behind his target.
In 13 games last season, Rudolph failed to complete at least one 60-yard pass only twice: at Texas Tech and at West Virginia. A 37-yard completion to Keenan Brown was his furthest against the Red Raiders while a 27-yard toss to Dillon Stoner was the longest throw he had on a rainy day in Morgantown.
Cornelius hasn’t faced any stellar defenses or peculiar weather conditions. His accuracy when throwing deep isn’t as good as Rudolph’s was, and it never was going to be.
“You have to look at your personnel,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “I don’t think you can get stuck on saying this is what we do and this is what we’re going to hang our hat on.”
OSU’s offensive line has been its biggest weakness, constricting the ground game and forcing Cornelius to get rid of the ball quicker in passing situations. Because they have not rushed the ball well, it magnifies the problem the Cowboys have in creating momentum-changing plays.
Gundy and Yurcich noted the offense and how they call plays has to be adjusted to fit the current players. Although Wallace and Johnson can be vertical threats, Cornelius hasn’t shown the ability to consistently make deep throws.
OSU’s offense has relied on its capability to take the top off of a defense the past three seasons. Even with a stellar stable of running backs and another deep receiving corps, Cornelius hasn’t shown he can effectively deliver deep passes.
His best throws have come on crossing routes, hitting receivers across the middle or throwing quick routes. On Saturday alone, Cornelius completed two tight throws to Wallace on slant routes to convert third downs.
Yurcich knows his offense has changed. He said he has to be more efficient at finding ways to be electric while scheming to his personnel.
“If we’re not going to make plays down the field as high frequency as we did in the past, I have to do a better job of getting us in better situations, more intermediate stuff, things over the middle,” Yurcich said. “More maybe in-breaking and different routes that can complement your offense other than just taking shots deep.”