Oklahoma Sooners: Cyrus Gray

We're continuing our look at the postseason rankings for each position in the Big 12. Here's a look back at where the running backs ranked in the preseason.

In this position, unlike quarterback, depth is a major, major factor in these rankings.

1. Texas A&M

The Aggies had the two most talented backs, and despite injuries to both, proved it through an otherwise frustrating 2011. Christine Michael suffered a torn ACL, but still managed 899 yards on just 149 carries. Cyrus Gray injured his shoulder late in the season, but secured his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and ranked third in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 198 times. This duo should have easily surpassed 1,000 yards, but even when they were injured, Ben Malena played well in the final two games.

[+] EnlargeChristine Michael
AP Photo/Brandon WadeChristine Michael averaged 6 yards per carry before a torn ACL ended his season.
2. Missouri

Mizzou dealt with injuries, too, first to Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore. Cue Henry Josey. Josey became the best back in the Big 12 this year before suffering a major knee injury that included torn ligaments. He may not be back in 2012. His 1,168 yards were third most in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 145 times. Lawrence finished 12th with 566 yards.

3. Oklahoma State

Joseph Randle stole the show this year, rushing for 24 scores and ranking second in the Big 12 with 1,216 yards. Only Collin Klein ran for more touchdowns and Terrance Ganaway was the only player with more yardage. Still, Jeremy Smith had averaged more than 7 yards a carry, and he'd be able to start for anyone else in the league. Herschel Sims showed promise, too, with 242 yards on 31 carries.

4. Baylor

Ganaway led the Big 12 in rushing with huge performances late in the season, including a 200-yard, five-touchdown game in his final outing as a college athlete in the Alamo Bowl. He averaged more than 6 yards on his 250 carries and had 330 more yards than any other back in the league. Jarred Salubi added 331 yards, too.

5. Texas

Texas' Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were banged-up late in the season, but Fozzy Whittaker played well until suffering a torn ACL against Missouri, too. Scatback D.J. Monroe was effective in the passing game as well. Four running backs topped 300 yards and Brown led the team with 742 yards, despite missing three games and having his carries limited early in the season.

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Sometimes it's something simple, like walking on the practice field, strictly forbidden in the must-hustle zone at Oklahoma. Maybe it's a missed question in a team meeting.

"When you’re not paying attention to every single thing that you do, it’ll show up on the field," said Sooners receiver Jaz Reynolds.

Lost focus can cost teams dearly. No one knows this more than the juggernaut in Norman, which inexplicably fell behind Texas Tech at home, 31-7, before losing, 41-38.

Oklahoma's team captains called a players-only meeting in the week that followed the loss to correct that, among other things.

"They felt the lack of focus that was out there and they brought it to our attention and made sure it doesn’t happen anymore," Reynolds said.

Their message was received, teammates said. A few days later, they proved it, emphatically responding to another part of the leaders' message.

"We should go out there and when you get hit in the mouth, keep playing," Reynolds recalled the leaders saying. "Everything’s not going to go right, but you’ve got to just keep playing."

Against Kansas State last Saturday, the Wildcats turned a 14-0 deficit into a 17-14 lead to seize control of the game. Oklahoma's answer? Shutting out K-State over the game's final 42 minutes to outscore the Wildcats, 44-0 in the 58-17 win.

"The offense complemented the defense, and the defense complemented us," Reynolds said. "We played as a complete team on Saturday."

Message not only received, but applied. Oklahoma was at its most dangerous, but that will have to continue this week. Texas A&M might have more losses than Kansas State, but the Aggies also have more talent and would love a statement win of their own.

"They’ve been potent all year when you look at their production, run and pass," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "They do a great job running the football and then everything sets up off of that; their play-action passes, then they’ll isolate their receivers different ways. Very good personnel, very good skill people and they do a really good job of using all of them. It’s a tough task keeping them down."

The Aggies have shown the ability to dominate two top-10 teams, opening up 18- and 17-point leads against Oklahoma State and Arkansas, though second-half collapses put blemishes on their record.

The league's No. 2 rushing attack has its two best backs, with Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael combining for 1,515 yards in eight games, both on pace to top 1,000 yards.

For the Sooners, though, winning this game is about maintaining that focus for another week and climbing back into the Big 12 race, where they still hold their own destiny.

"Not all criticism is bad for you," Reynolds said. "You can get better from it, and that’s what we took from it."

For the Sooners, the challenge will be keeping that focus and playing as a complete team for one more week. ... And then another next week.
Unranked Texas A&M's 33-19 upset of then-No. 8 Oklahoma last season left two lasting images.

For the first time in a long time, players left the field to chants of "Wrecking Crew," the moniker ultimately reserved for the best Texas A&M defenses.

The other was the dominant play on the line of scrimmage that birthed those chants.

Three times, Von Miller's crew stuffed Oklahoma at the goal line, the biggest coming in the final minutes to seal the win, denying DeMarco Murray the end zone on three runs inside the 5-yard line.

[+] EnlargeChristine Michael
AP Photo/Brandon WadeChristine Michael will need room to run for the Aggies to upset Oklahoma on Saturday.
Once again, Texas A&M is unranked and facing Oklahoma with three losses. This time, it travels to Norman, where it was beaten 65-10 in its last trip back in 2009.

The Sooners and Aggies are the two most physical offenses in the Big 12, and if A&M is going to spring another upset, it will have to win the battle of the line of scrimmage. The Big 12, with its elite skill-position talent and deep stock of quarterbacks, doesn't always have games decided up front. This one will be.

"Our offensive line is coming around," said Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, who played true freshmen last year at both offensive tackle spots. "Until this last ballgame, defensively, we’ve been pretty good against the run."

Consider: Oklahoma leads the nation with 34 sacks. The Sooners have allowed three sacks, tied with Boise State for the fewest nationally.

Texas A&M, meanwhile, has given up just seven sacks and is third nationally with 30 sacks.

"A lot of us have definitely stepped up," said Texas A&M defensive lineman Spencer Nealy. "We definitely always play with a lot of effort, and at times, like any other position, we’ll have mistakes, but as a whole, we played pretty good."

The Aggies, though, have ascended to second in the Big 12 at 224 yards rushing per game while Oklahoma has sunk to eighth, though the Sooners possess the league's top passing attack.

Oklahoma will be without leading rusher Dominique Whaley, too, who suffered a broken ankle in Saturday's win over Kansas State.

Texas A&M fields the league's best 1-2 punch at running back, and last year's growth took place without one of them even on the field.

"The maturation of [the offensive line] really helped us. We struggled early in the season. We gave up a lot of sacks in the first half of the season. We didn’t run the ball very well," Sherman said. "We weren’t protecting well, we weren't running the ball well. They started to come into their own. A couple of our young tackles were talented but they didn’t have the experience. I thought they grew up in the second half of the season and we emphasized the run game more and took some pressure off the passing game and tried to stay out of long-yardage situations. ... They had a big part in the second-half run last season."

It's only continued into 2011. Christine Michael's broken leg that forced him out of the second half of the season has healed, and he's on course for a career season with 811 yards, third-most in the Big 12. Cyrus Gray has 704 yards of his own to rank ninth in the league.

Those two are fully capable of carrying the Aggies to the upset.

Despite the high sack numbers for A&M, it's given up more passing yards per game than any team in the country. How?

"It’s not ability at all. We’ve got some of the best players in the Big 12," Nealy said, pointing to fundamentals.

The best way to slow Oklahoma's passing attack is to keep it off the field. That means running the ball well and pressuring Landry Jones.

Texas A&M's offensive and defensive lines can do that. They proved it last year.

Now, it's time to do it again.

First Glance: Breaking down Texas A&M 

October, 31, 2011
Record: 5-3 (3-2 Big 12)
Sept. 4: SMU, 46-14 (W)
Sept. 17: Idaho, 37-7 (W)
Sept. 24: Oklahoma State, 30-29 (L)
Oct. 1: Arkansas, 42-38 (L)

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 7

October, 13, 2011
Here's what I'm watching for in Saturday's games.

1. Have mercy, Oklahoma. At this point, it's mostly just curiosity. It won't get any worse for Kansas this year, but I remember checking my phone on the field at the Cotton Bowl last Saturday and seeing OSU led 35-7 at the end of the first quarter. I shouldn't have been surprised. I was. Oklahoma's winning this game. The biggest question is by how much.

2. Whaddaya got, Wrecking Crew? Especially you guys at the back. There's no reason Texas A&M should be this bad defending the pass. It's a definite anomaly. The Aggies rank last nationally and are giving up 113 more yards per game through the air than in 2010, but it is second nationally in sacks. Want to prove you're not that bad? Shutting down or slowing down Baylor will do it.

3. Baylor's front seven. Meanwhile, Texas A&M is fully capable of running over just about anybody in the league, and definitely Baylor. The Bears rank 82nd nationally in rush defense, and that could mean a big day for Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray.

4. Kansas State's time of possession. Caring about this stat has gone out of style everywhere but Manhattan, it seems. The Wildcats average 35:56 a game, which is almost three full minutes more than anyone in the league. Tech, meanwhile, is one of seven Big 12 teams under the 30-minute mark. Will a win in this stat mean a win on the scoreboard?

5. Does home field matter...at all? Can the crowd in Kansas do anything to help stave off an ugly loss for the Jayhawks?

6. Which side is more desperate? Iowa State needs this game to keep its hopes of a bowl game alive. If Missouri loses, the possibility of missing the postseason becomes very real, too. Win and the Tigers may get some momentum moving forward. This is a classic case of a must-win for both sides. That usually produces great football.

7. Henry Josey. I'm guessing most of you didn't know the man who started the season as Missouri's third-string running back is leading the Big 12 in rushing. He's been outstanding. That's what happens when you average more than 10 yards a carry. Will Missouri keep handing him the ball as its other backs get back to health?

8. Texas' pass rush. There's no truth to rumors that Landry Jones consuming both a corn dog and a fried Snickers in the backfield last week, but he had enough time to do it if he wanted to. The Longhorns can't let Oklahoma State's quick-release offense do the same. Brandon Weeden must be pressured, or OSU will roll in this one easily.

9. Case McCoy and David Ash. How will the distribution between these two Texas quarterbacks look? Ash is the more physically impressive quarterback, but he made big, big mistakes against Oklahoma's experienced defense. These guys have to play well and move the ball consistently for the Horns to pull the upset.

10. OSU stays consistent? The Cowboys, outside of a game last year without Justin Blackmon, was the Big 12's most consistent team a year ago. That's been the case again this year, and OSU has won seven consecutive road games. Texas has never lost the week after the Red River Rivalry under Mack Brown, but this is likely the toughest team the Horns have seen in that 13-game stretch. Austin is generally a tough place to play, but OSU made it look easy last year. Will this year look the same?


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