Most, if not all of the premiere teams in the Big XII share some sort of playmaker or dimension that sets themselves apart. Baylor has Seth Russell, and a complement of receivers that are leading the nation in total offense. TCU has Heisman Trophy quarterback candidate Trevone Boykin on their side to help overcome occasional setbacks. Even Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners have a rocket-armed QB in Baker Mayfield.
And then there’s Oklahoma State, a team that’s yet to receive any significant recognition nationally, remains as one of the nation’s 12 unbeatens. It’s an added mystery to how Oklahoma State has reached this high level of success this season. With unquestioned quarterback controversy, alongside rising stars on defense, it’s hard to quantum just how the Cowboys are ranked 14th nationally by mostly all of the major polls.
Perhaps it begins with head coach Mike Gundy, who as a head coach, doesn’t shy away from driving home the brutal honesty into the minds of young adults, even if it comes out in the most perilous situations. At times his “underdog” demeanor gets buried underneath his true moral values. For many instances, Gundy has been forced to work harder than he’s ever had with this year’s team.
From what has transpired this season, this year’s Oklahoma State squad just doesn’t make logical sense. Despite regular starter Mason Rudolph having thrown for 2,197 yards and 10 TDs. It’s been a gamble for Gundy to start him weekly since he’s thrown 7 interceptions during his seven-week stint. But overall, Rudolph is still learning. It has taken some growing pains early this season for Gundy to mature his young QB into a disciplined starter. Much of this had to do with the benching of Rudolph late in the 3rd quarter in Morgantown, which allowed former starter, and now back-up J.W. Walsh to gain exposure.
Gundy has worked around his allured QB controversy and is still faced with even more unorthodox within the offense. Oklahoma State upholds the 7th best red zone offense in the nation (having scored on 34/36 attempts, 23 for TDs), although it bolsters one of the worst efficient running offenses in the country. It’s easy to point out how little support Gundy has received on the ground given the fact that they’re 96th in FBS in rushing offense. As a unit, the Cowboys have rushed for 1,025 yards through seven weeks. To put this more into perspective; 7 different running backs in college football have run for more yards alone than Oklahoma State has as a team.
Many pieces that Gundy envisioned would happen this year hasn’t yet materialized. Case in point, expectations for RB Chris Carson were higher than anticipated. Carson was expected to grow as a runner and appear as an every other down tail-back who could get yards when the Cowboys offense needed it. Now, after constant dismal performances in run support, has hindered Carson’s production level completely.
On the opposite end, Gundy has always preached discipline, hard work, and effort to his Cowboys. A weekly standard that’s derived from endless hours of practice to then on game day on Saturday. This excellence he attempts to implement isn’t hard nature, but something he tries to capture in his players daily.
“I don’t ask for a lot of things, but one thing I never tolerate is effort, that’s given” Gundy said in a post game press conference after Oklahoma State’s comeback victory at Texas in late September. Even regarding the uneasiness his team has fought through offensively. One defining line, that embodies Gundy’s implored work ethic, is the commitment on defense. That, through the grueling weeks of October has set itself apart from the rest.
Based off of most teams in the Big XII. The bigger focus tends to shift to the offensive side, where points are necessary for survival. Or how Baylor Bears head coach Art Briles puts it, “as long as you score one more point than the opponent, you’re doing your job”. For Briles, his standards meets a simpler need. But for Gundy’s Cowboys, defense has been the staple he’s yearned for, and he finally has the players that can fit into his system.
Coming into this season, there was a lot of new faces slotted on the Cowboy’s defensive line after losing tackles James Castleman and Ofa Hautau from a year ago. But in all essence, Gundy has received budding performances from defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. Both, who collectively, have become an integral part of the team’s 27 sacks, which is second in the FBS.
It wasn’t just a revamped defensive line that Gundy had to re-work. He had to deal with eligibility issues in his secondary. That of which forced drastic problems in summer ball, that consequently forced one player to be dismissed from the program. The drama persisted, and led to endless personal conferences with starting free safety Jordan Stern and senior cornerback Kevin Peterson about leadership. So far, the two of them have come together and have played at All-American levels. The combination of experience, plus a guilt of fortitude from his secondary have resulted in one of the more formidable pass defenses in the country. Through seven games, OSU ranks 19th against the pass, having allowed just 6 TDs. In addition, the Cowboys have forced 8 interceptions and in total have issued 16 turnovers.
It can go along the lines of being reckless, but that’s just how Gundy likes it. The rough, tough-neck style football is the only approach Gundy sends to his players. However, there’s a soft side to his mulish persona, one that just recently hit home in the largest of matters.
Saturday morning’s disastrous event in Stillwater, which led to four dead and over thirty injured during Oklahoma State’s homecoming parade. Gundy expressed remorse for the victims. In yesterday’s game against Kansas, the U.S. flag was lowered to half-staff, commemorating all of the ones who were lost in a senseless tragedy. This was at the moment, where the no-nonsense head coach began to crack under the emotions and feel empathy for his players, himself, and university. Gundy’s pre-game speech, one that contained a wide variety of grief. Contained just one statement: family.
The message of family, every so often can be revealed to his players in more ways than not. This has always been an accepted notion before and after every practice. Where Gundy, again brings himself back to work ethic and desire. One of Gundy’s most impactful sayings is “to stay focused and to rise to the occasion is never easy, because no one else will do it for you”.
Playing with heavy hearts, Oklahoma State pummelled Kansas. Yes, the result came as expected. But for the rest of the season, Gundy’s Cowboys have the potential to play with any team in the nation. The lessons from coach to quarterback, can set the foundation for success later for Mason Rudolph. Oklahoma State possesses a defense that is playing above most in its conference, and has the play makers to hold their own against the nation’s very best offenses.
No matter how the season turns for them. Mike Gundy has taken HIS team from the harsh beginnings into fearless competitors. It might not have been the basic way, but it was Gundy’s way.