Consider these two formations, lined up in virtually the same spot in the same stadium by the same team.
These are two Oklahoma State plays run with one decade and five offensive coordinators between them, one led by Brandon Weeden in 2010 and the other with Spencer Sanders at the controls in 2020. In a 2014 OSU playbook, the formation is called “tre,” and it’s one example of the continuity at the backbone of what the Cowboys do.
Second-year offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn spoke to FiveThirtyEight this spring about what makes it all work. Dunn, who started with the program as a wide receivers coach in 2011, received the play-calling reins ahead of the 2020 season is now the person tasked with getting the OSU offense back to its usual perch among the best units in college football.
“We’re a throw team,” Dunn told FiveThirtyEight.
Head coach Mike Gundy, the fifth-longest-tenured head coach in the FBS, was elevated in 2005 after four years as offensive coordinator for the old-school under center advocate Les Miles. But he gave up play calling after the 2009 season,1 hiring Dana Holgorsen in 2010 after his stints with famously pass-happy head coaches Mike Leach and Kevin Sumlin.
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The effect was immediate. OSU’s passing attempts per game went up from 25.8 in 2009 to 40.9 in 2010, and with it came an increase in output (179.5 passing yards per game in 2009 to 345.8 per game in 2010, good for second in the FBS). That year, the Cowboys were a touchdown away from playing in the Big 12 championship game.
The OSU metamorphosis was complete, and from there, tweaks only served to refine the Cowboys’ offensive focus — starting with the hire of Todd Monken in 2011 to replace Holgorsen, who left to coach West Virginia.
“Dana was very loose with routes and timing, and it comes off of that old Leach system of throwing the ball around where there was just run to grass, get open in this time frame,” Dunn said. “And Todd was coming from the NFL, where it’s much more precise and you hit this depth and there’s no gray area here — you drive back to the quarterback.”
The air raid offense is heavy on throwing but not so much on the structure. It’s a system with freedom because it attacks space in its purest form.
The precision was something Monken added, with more defined rules for route running and tying elements into the length of the quarterback’s drop.
“Personally I like that part of it better because I think the timing aspect is better for the QB,” Dunn said.
While people may read “air raid” and think exclusively of deep passes, that’s not exactly how Oklahoma State’s offense attacked under Monken. Justin Blackmon won his second Biletnikoff Award in 2011 as the nation’s best wide receiver with an average yards per reception of only 12.5, the second lowest of any receiver since the award was created in 1994.2
The vertical passing game really became a staple at OSU in 2013, when Monken left for Southern Miss and was replaced by Mike Yurcich. In 2011, 55 percent of Weeden’s passes were thrown within 5 air yards of the line of scrimmage. In 2015, with Yurcich in his third year calling plays, only 35 percent of QB Mason Rudolph’s met the same criteria. To put it simply, the Cowboys were making a concerted effort to push the ball vertically down the field, and increases in tempo didn’t hurt either. The bells and whistles changed, but the core did not. In both 2011 and 2015, OSU was in the national championship conversation deep into November.
“The foundational calls and terminology has stayed really the same,” Dunn said. “That’s kinda cool for us. When I’m recruiting a kid, he can go back and watch Justin Blackmon run the same routes he’s running. It’s pretty cool that it’s stood the test of time but everybody’s had their own little twist to it.”
“We’re gonna run the football.”
Despite the air raid philosophy baked in over the years, Oklahoma State still wants to run the ball — and the program has retained at least some of its ground game over the years. That diamond formation shown earlier allows a team that operates exclusively out of shotgun to retain a downhill run element (something air raid teams typically lack) and is, in former offensive line coach Joe Wickline’s words, “a viable option for teams lacking [tight end] personnel.”
It was Yurcich’s addition of a quarterback run game that added variety to Oklahoma State’s run game. By 2017 and 2018, the Cowboys were running more run-pass options, blending the run and the pass in one neat package. Sean Gleeson spent his year as offensive coordinator in 2019 bringing in even more backfield wrinkles and feeding running back Chuba Hubbard a nation-leading 328 carries and 25.2 attempts per game. But over the past three seasons, OSU was increasingly running into a problem.
“Gundy’s a quarterback guy,” Dunn said, “but he wants to be able to control the clock and control the game and the run game, so we’ve tried to develop that aspect of it a little bit more. And two years ago with Sean, we really kinda pushed forward in the run game, but I think at the end of the day, philosophically, you’ve gotta score points.”
In many ways, how the Cowboys have chosen to develop their run game is a product of their personnel, which in 2019 and 2020 included Hubbard and Sanders, the latter of whom was a credible threat in the QB run game in a way that Rudolph wasn’t.
But production tailed off as the Cowboys tried to figure out what combination of run/pass and personnel can work, and this is where OSU finds itself. From 2015 to 2017, they tallied 0.147 expected points added per play, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group — good for third in the FBS. From 2018 to 2020, they had 0.097 EPA per play, which ranked 29th.
Some of the performance in 2020 can be attributed to the injury bug and attrition that ravaged the offensive line, and the lack of spring practice and pandemic-affected fall camp couldn’t have helped. As Sanders got healthy and the offense’s play counts ticked up, Oklahoma State was able to start scoring at a clip they’re more accustomed to given the high-voltage offenses of the past: The Cowboys scored over 35 points three times in their final four games of the season, something they did only once in their first seven game.
But as Dunn enters his second year as offensive coordinator, this is the challenge. He’s the elder statesman of this coaching staff, and he sees himself as the bridge from where Oklahoma State was to where it wants to be.
“I would say I got the job in large part because I wasn’t gonna veer too far off from what has brought Oklahoma State a lot of success,” Dunn said. “Gundy’d be the first one to tell you it’s not my offense or Mike Yurcich’s offense or Todd Monken’s offense or even Dana Holgorsen’s, which is really where it kinda started as far as our base is now.
“It’s Oklahoma State’s offense, and it’s true. Every guy that comes in here is running that offense. Nobody comes in here and changes the offense.”