TCU heads back to Stillwater, Okla., for the second consecutive season for an 11 a.m. Saturday game with No. 21 Oklahoma State.The Cowboys (4-1, 1-1 in the Big 12) were the media’s pick to the win the league in August, but have lost some of their luster after a loss at West Virginia and holding off Kansas State at home.They’ll be trying to rediscover their mojo against the Horned Frogs (3-3, 1-2) who are still looking for a four-quarter game from their offense. TCU was picked to finish third in the league, but its offensive struggles and several major injuries have altered the expectations. The Frogs could resurrect their hopes with a big upset.I discussed Saturday’s game with Cowboys beat writer from The Oklahoman Gina Mizell. You can follow her on Twitter at @GinaMizell. SS: Is there a real problem with the OSU offense or do you think it was just a few sub-par performances? What has been the problem with the offense? GM: Based on what we’ve seen so far, this offense certainly is not as prolific as its been since switching to the Air Raid in 2010. Mike Gundy has continuously pointed to the fact that the Cowboys no longer have an NFL-caliber quarterback (Brandon Weeden), but Weeden also wasn’t here last season and the offense still hummed along just fine with three different starters because of an injury-driven QB carousel. There have been several issues. The most obvious is J.W. Walsh does not have a dynamite arm. It’s better than a season ago, but he’s still not accurate down the field, to the sideline on out routes, etc. The offensive line is really hurting because of a preseason injury to starting LT Devin Davis. That moved Parker Graham from RG to LT, and finding someone else to fill in at RG has been a challenge. And the running game hasn’t gotten going, which partly has to do with Jeremy Smith and partly the O-Line. Even a very good receiver unit has come up with some drops in key moments. Lots of blame has been put on new OC Mike Yurcich, and he’s an easy target because he’s new and was a bit of a risky hire since he came from a Division II school. But his hands have been tied at times because of a lack of execution (or lack of ability) from his players. GM: Start with a simple one: Is this a must-win for TCU? Why or why not? SS: It certainly is a must-win if the Frogs have any illusions of staying in the Big 12 race. Their loss at Texas Tech in September pretty much forced them to win at either Norman or Stillwater. Before the season, I had them losing at both, but beating Tech. Before the season I wouldn’t have been shocked by TCU winning at OSU, but I would be now, with their offense and their injury problems. SS: What’s been the biggest improvement with the defense? Who are the guys who have stepped up? GM: The Cowboys have lived up to the expectation that they would play more aggressively. The front seven has been particularly solid, led by DT Calvin Barnett and LBs Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis. Justin Gilbert has really improved his technique and looks like a totally different player in the secondary after a disappointing 2012 season. The defensive backs are playing tighter coverage in certain situations. This is a unit that has been really good in “sudden change” situations — if the offense turns the ball over deep in their own territory, if special teams gives up a big return, etc. And the takeaways have returned. OSU forced five in the second half against K-State, which sealed the victory. GM: The offense has obviously struggled this season. Is it a Trevone Boykin problem? A receiver problem? Something else? SS: It’s a little of everything. Boykin is talented but I don’t know if he possesses the accuracy necessary to beat Big 12 defenses. But his receivers have been little help to him through six games. Too many drops, too many bad routes, too many mistakes. His offensive line is thin but has been OK. Many fans think coaching and play-calling is a big part of the problem but I don’t. I think it’s lack of execution and personnel issues. SS: OSU leads the Big 12 in turnover margin. Who are the Cowboys’ big play makers on defense? GM: Shaun Lewis is a guy who has always been around the football for his entire career. He’s got two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery so far this season, to go along with 24 tackles (four for loss), 0.5 sacks and a quarterback hurry. Justin Gilbert’s already got two interceptions this season after having a grand total of zero in 2012. Caleb Lavey leads the team with 40 tackles (6.5 for loss) and has an interception and forced fumble. S Lyndell Johnson and LB Ryan Simmons have also been known for impact plays. GM: Who’s an under-the-radar player that could make a big impact on Saturday’s game? SS: The last few weeks a different young defensive player has stepped up and made an impact. Defensive end Terrell Lathan played well against SMU. Linebacker Paul Dawson led the team with 17 tackles against Kansas. Safety Derrick Kindred has played well when given the chance and against OSU you’ll probably see him a bunch. He could be the guy against OSU. SS: How do you think the Cowboys handled the preseason rankings (which had them winning the league)? Do you think that had any negative/positive effect on the team the first month of the season? GM: Considering the Cowboys lost their Big 12 opener, you could say they didn’t handle them very well. But I don’t think this was an arrogant bunch in Morgantown. It was one that just didn’t play well. It certainly hyped up fans’ expectations, ones that OSU hasn’t quite lived up to through two Big 12 games. But, as we’ve seen, the Big 12 as a whole has already had some huge surprise games, some teams that have struggled against opponents they were expected to blow out, etc. I predict the conference champ will have two losses, and that there will be some sort of wacky tie situation at the end of the season. OSU is still very much in that mix. GM: Is there a part of the TCU defense that OSU can attack? Does it have a weakness? SS: TCU is susceptible to big plays. Every opponent has busted open a big gainer at least once this season. The Frogs 4-2-5 puts a lot of pressure on their cornerbacks who play man coverage most of the time. Speedy receivers can sometimes exploit the defense and a talented strike-throwing QB can burn them. SS: Has RB Jeremy Smith been a disappointment so far or is the offensive line to blame for his less than stellar totals? Do you think J.W. Walsh will lead the team in rushing at the end of the season? GM: Definitely a combination of both. Smith admitted he sometimes got caught trying to make too many moves behind the line of scrimmage, rather than just making one cut and getting upfield. He was the tough, downhill complement back to Kendall Hunter and Joseph Randle his first three seasons — OSU would often take those guys out and put Smith in third-down, short-yardage and goal-line situations — but hadn’t been using that same style for a lot of the season so far. He seemed to get back to it against K-State, where he was running with more visible power and burst. And, as noted above, the offensive line has had issues and certainly haven’t helped Smith. All that said, J.W. Walsh very well could lead the team in rushing by the end of the season, though his legs have been slowed a bit so far in Big 12 play. I’m curious to see how the running game overall tries to attack TCU’s front seven. GM: On paper, this sure looks like a matchup of two lackluster offenses and two stout defenses. So what ultimately decides this game? Whichever teams scores a defensive touchdown? SS: You might be right about whichever team scores with its defense. The problem for the Frogs is they’re taking the ’lack’ in lackluster to a whole new level, especially in the first half. If they don’t snap out of it they’ll lose four of their last six games. The defense is great, but it’s not good enough to make up for such an anemic offense. I’m not as concerned with OSU’s offense. The Cowboys may just be in a mini-slump. TCU could be looking at the offense it’s stuck with the rest of 2013 unless Casey Pachall returns healthy and in top form in November.
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs