Jan. 10, 2013
There is an adage in football - if you have two starting quarterbacks, that means you have none. So what does it mean if you have three starting quarterbacks?
Oklahoma State authored its own answer to that question in 2012, as injuries forced coach Mike Gundy into starting three different quarterbacks and all three delivered Big 12 conference victories. In fact, the trio of Clint Chelf, Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh remarkably combined to quarterback the Cowboys to a top-10 national finish in scoring offense (third), total offense (fourth) and passing offense (seventh).
The productive play of OSU's quarterbacks during an injury-ravaged season at the most important position in all of sports is at the core of why the Cowboys were able to compile a solid 8-5 record that included a 5-4 record in Big 12 play during a year that provided enough adversity to bury many teams. And this was not against a weak or watered-down Big 12 - the conference placed a staggering nine of its 10 teams in bowl games.
There is little question that the quarterback position was the central storyline of the 2012 Oklahoma State football season. It played out like this:
With record-setting quarterback Brandon Weeden gone as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Gundy held an open quarterback derby in the spring between Chelf, Lunt and Walsh. As the most experienced member of the trio, Chelf took the opening snaps of the spring, but as the practices continued, the true freshman and early-enrollee Lunt took control of the position and was named starter at the end of the spring in a decision that made national headlines. Walsh was named the second-teamer with Chelf third-team.
Lunt started the season-opener against Savannah State, but the contest was so lopsided (the final score was 84-0), that Gundy pulled Lunt and the rest of the starters midway through the first quarter. It wasn't until week two of the season before observers got a chance to see what Lunt was capable of in a challenging setting as the Cowboys traveled to Tucson to battle Arizona.
Against the Wildcats, Lunt completed 37-of-60 passes for 436 yards and four touchdowns for one of the best statistical performances for any Cowboy quarterback ever - much less a true freshman. Though Oklahoma State lost the game, Lunt's legend grew.
Things changed on the opening drive of OSU's next game against Louisiana, when Lunt went down with a knee injury that knocked him out of the game. Walsh stepped in to pass for 347 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and he also had six carries for 73 yards and a touchdown in the contest.
With an injured Lunt on the sidelines, Walsh started the next three games and delivered wins over Kansas and Iowa State and shined in defeat against Texas by passing for 301 yards with two touchdowns and adding eight carries for 57 yards against the Longhorns. Walsh engineered a fourth-quarter drive that gave the Cowboys the lead with 2:34 remaining in the contest, but Texas marched down and scored the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left. Similar to Lunt after Arizona, Walsh's legend was growing.
At no point was Walsh - who was recognized as the 2012 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year - a more popular figure than after he quarterbacked OSU to a 31-10 win over Iowa State on Homecoming despite playing most of the game with a broken bone in his leg. Walsh terrorized a strong Cyclone defense by completing 32-of-47 passes for 415 yards and a touchdown and adding nine carries for 46 yards and a score. Though Walsh never said anything about his injury and didn't show as much as a limp during the game, he was examined the next day and declared out for a significant amount of time.
With Walsh out, Lunt was back in the saddle as the starter against a very stout TCU team and he quarterbacked the Cowboys to one of their best wins of the season, a 36-14 stomping of the Horned Frogs. Lunt threw for 324 yards and a touchdown and looked to have picked up right where he left off.
Lunt started the next game at No. 2 Kansas State but was knocked out of the game in the third quarter. With Lunt and Walsh both out, the stage was set for Chelf, who stepped in and led a fourth-quarter rally that put OSU in position to threaten the Wildcats before eventually running out of steam. Playing for less than a half at KSU, Chelf amassed 233 passing yards and a touchdown.
All three quarterbacks dressed for the next game against West Virginia, but Gundy gave the nod to Chelf after his strong showing in Manhattan and the junior responded by completing 22-of-31 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-34 wipeout of the high-powered Mountaineers. As a third-teamer-turned-successful starter, Chelf became somewhat of a cult hero among OSU fans and never relinquished the starting job. He claimed a signature win when he led the Cowboys to a 59-21 win over Texas Tech.
Chelf went on to earn Most Valuable Player honors at the Heart of Dallas Bowl after quarterbacking Oklahoma State to a 58-14 beating of Purdue.
While the productivity of the quarterbacks amid unusual circumstances was the central storyline of the season, it certainly was not the only one.
On the offensive side of the ball, junior running back Joseph Randle earned first-team All-Big 12 honors and was a workhorse for the Cowboys all season. While the quarterback position was a revolving door, Randle was a rock that kept the OSU offensive machine going regardless of who was at quarterback.
He carried the ball 274 times for 1,417 yards with 14 touchdowns and added 28 catches for 224 yards. He performed his best when his best was needed most, racking up 199 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Texas and 113 rushing yards and four touchdowns at Oklahoma.
Randle and sophomore receiver Josh Stewart were Oklahoma State's two most consistently productive offensive weapons, with Stewart contributing 101 catches for 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns, plus eight carries for 120 yards and a score. Stewart also had a 64-yard punt return in the first quarter of the bowl game that set up an OSU touchdown at a point where the game was still in doubt. Stewart's 101 catches for 1,210 yards in 2012 made him the third-most productive sophomore receiver in school history, trailing only Justin Blackmon - who had the most productive sophomore season in NCAA history on his way to winning the first of his two Biletnikoff Awards as America's top receiver - and Dez Bryant, who was a Biletnikoff Award finalist his sophomore year.
Randle and Stewart were the two players most opposing defenses keyed on during the season, but the truth is that Oklahoma State's offensive balance was perhaps its biggest strength. The Cowboys led the nation with a staggering 20 different players scoring touchdowns in 2012. A school-record five different players logged 100-yard receiving games and Chelf, Lunt and Walsh became the first trio in Big 12 history to pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.
The theme of balance spread throughout the roster, as OSU had 20 different players make their first career start in 2012, the sixth-highest total in the country.
One area that was not balanced was the kicking game, where Quinn Sharp monopolized the action. He handled the kickoff duties, the placements and the punting chores and was superb in all areas, becoming the first three-time All-American in school history after the American Football Coaches Association named him first-team All-America kicker.
Sharp led all kickers nationally with 2.15 field goals per game and ranked second among all NCAA players - and first among kickers - with 12.00 points scored per game. Though he did not punt enough times to qualify for the NCAA individual statistical rankings (his 46.3 yards-per-punt average would have been good for fourth nationally), Sharp was the driving force behind OSU leading the Big 12 and ranking third nationally in net punting. For the second straight year, he was honored as the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.
Perhaps the area where Oklahoma State improved the most from 2011 to 2012 was on the interior of the defensive line, where Calvin Barnett made his presence felt from the beginning. Barnett wasn't spectacular on the stat sheet (30 tackles, eight tackles for loss and one sack), but he was a consistent menace in opposing teams' backfields by disrupting the timing of running plays and forcing quarterbacks out of the pocket. For his efforts, Barnett was voted as the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year by the league's coaches.
He and linebackers Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey were the most consistent players on a Cowboy defense that shut down two of the nation's most potent offenses in Texas Tech and West Virginia and also held bowl-bound teams from Louisiana, Iowa State, TCU and Purdue below their normal production in terms of both points and yards.