Comeback Cowboys: A look at unbeaten Oklahoma State's resolve
AMES, Iowa—A 275-pound human skipped along the grass in central Iowa last Saturday, which seemed like a reasonable way for someone feeling invincible to act. "Time to go home!" redshirt junior defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah shouted after another escape for 10–0 Oklahoma State, the team that believes it will not lose. The Cowboys, of course, realize losing is possible. They understand the concept of it. They also have completed three comeback wins of 15 points or more this fall, including a 35–31 victory at Iowa State last weekend that was capped when redshirt senior quarterback J.W. Walsh found freshman tailback Jeff Carr for a seven-yard touchdown pass with just over three minutes remaining. Oklahoma State's catastrophe-to-cleanup cycle is fast and repeatable. Had Ogbah's cleat snagged along his celebratory path to the locker room, and had he popped a ligament as a result, he probably would have expected another to instantly regenerate in its place.
Beating the Big 12's best hope to reach the College Football Playoff is doable. It is just exceedingly difficult, because Oklahoma State refuses to concede, instead relying on an elastic resolve to catapult it forward at times of maximum strain. Some of this is built into a program at a school that has endured things far more traumatic than 10-point fourth-quarter deficits. Some of it is simply belief compounding over time. So, even with games that will decide the Cowboys' season set to take place—No. 6 Oklahoma State hosts tenth-ranked Baylor (9–1) on Saturday and seventh-ranked Oklahoma (9–1) the weekend after—the team will maintain the belief that everything will be fine, especially when it's not.
"It definitely helps when you've done it a few times and you tell those guys, 'It's nothing, we've been here before,'" redshirt senior wide receiver David Glidden said. "If it was something that hasn't really happened, or you've kind of lost close games here and there, there might be those guys that don't really buy in. That's just not the case with this team."
Win twice more in any fashion at Boone Pickens Stadium, where it has outscored opponents by an average of 30 points this year, and Oklahoma State should go from unranked in the preseason to being one of four teams afforded a shot at a national title. The club that often does things the hard way has an easy-to-grasp objective. "Either way," coach Mike Gundy said after last week's win, "we don't have to politic."
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In a weight room-turned-postgame debriefing area, Gundy was candid as night fell on his team's 10th victory in 2015. During the week he had thought about the '11 campaign, when the Cowboys' last run toward a national title hit a pothole with a double-overtime 37–31 defeat in Ames. And he certainly thought about it more as his team scraped its way back from a lack of energy and a porous run defense this time around. Situations like the '11 game never go away for a coach, Gundy said. But he also currently has the benefit of running a team with a knack for erasures.
His Cowboys have won five times this season after trailing in the second half, and four times when trailing with 190 seconds or less to play. They have won all four games that came down to the final possession. The latest resurrection at Iowa State was notable for players' bemusement that anyone would expect a different outcome. "You can see week in and week out the [increasing] amount of people who you can see in their eyes believe we're going to win the game," said Walsh, the Cowboys' primary running quarterback who comes in regularly to spell sophomore starter Mason Rudolph. "No, it doesn't get easier. It's just that we're programmed that way now."
Part of the programming involves Thursday mental health breaks Gundy has arranged for his roster. He imports speakers with the intent of uncluttering his players' minds, imbuing some life lessons and also focusing them on the task at hand. Though the Cowboys couldn't come to a consensus on the words of wisdom that preceded the Iowa State comeback—Ogbah said it was a message about not giving up, junior receiver Marcell Ateman recalled it relating to opponents doubting the Cowboys, redshirt sophomore linebacker Chad Whitener said accountability was the theme—all agreed that the sessions have brought balance to their approach. "It puts everything in perspective," Whitener said.
Another part of the programming: A defense that thrives on big plays, ranking eighth in the FBS in tackles for loss per game (8.0), just two spots behind top-ranked Clemson (8.4). The Cowboys have a game-changing edge rusher in Ogbah, whose 11 sacks rank third in the country, and a knack for forcing turnovers (their 24 gained is tied for fifth nationally). Eliminate tempo from the equation and the unit is fairly efficient: Oklahoma State allows 0.325 points per play—a far cry from the likes of fellow playoff contenders Ohio State (0.192) and Alabama (0.219), but less so from Clemson (0.290) or Notre Dame (0.315).
More than anything, though, this team rallies behind a highly effectual offense. The Cowboys rank fourth in the FBS in points per play (0.575), as the 6' 4", 220-pound Rudolph has made NFL throw after NFL throw—some of the balls he dropped in to Ateman at Iowa State looked laser-guided—en route to 3,161 passing yards with 18 touchdowns. His increased comfort is evident; the sophomore has thrown just one interception in his last four games after tossing six picks in his previous three. "It helps, man, when you've got 10-plus starts and you're settled in and see things happen a lot slower," Rudolph said. "I knew at this point in the season I needed to start progressing and seeing things."
Oklahoma State employs a two-quarterback approach: Rudolph dissects opposing defenses with his arm, while Walsh, the onetime 2012 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, is primarily a rushing threat. Though competition under center would divide some locker rooms, it has served as a galvanizing force in this one. "The way they feed off each other, it's rare to see in college football these days," Glidden said. "There are not too many two-quarterback systems that have worked the way this has worked."
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Though Gundy's mind flashed back to 2011 during the course of another tenuous venture in Ames last weekend, the circumstances of this trip were obviously far less tragic: A night before that '11 loss to the Cyclones, four people, including Oklahoma State head women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna, were killed in a plane crash. To exacerbate the bad memories, Gundy still flogs himself for that Nov. 18, for not being flexible enough to change when what had been working suddenly wasn't. "I probably failed our team four years ago," Gundy said. Still, the Cowboys would go on to beat a pair of top 10 teams after that, drubbing Oklahoma by 34 in Bedlam and then edging Stanford by three in the Fiesta Bowl.
They nevertheless were left out of the BCS championship game in favor of an LSU-Alabama rematch that flopped and, in many ways, ignited the movement toward the current playoff system. This time, in pursuit of a title once more, Oklahoma State has not slipped. But just like in 2011, it cannot afford to find out what happens after a defeat. Not if it wants to be sure about what comes next.
So, Oklahoma State reduces its team's progression from one moment to the next. "It's helped me, it's helped our staff, and I would like to think it's helped our players," Gundy said at his Monday news conference this week. "They just can't bypass a day. That's really the way it is. That wasn't the same message years ago, the other years we won 11 and 12 games, whatever it may be. There were different type of athletes and players on the team, so the message wasn't like it is this year."
The group that narrowly beat Texas (30–27 on Sept. 26), Kansas State (36–34 on Oct. 3), West Virginia (33–26 in overtime on Oct. 10) and Iowa State knows what it took to get to 10–0, and it refuses to get too far ahead of itself as a result. "You almost never hear anybody talk about playoffs," Walsh said. "Nobody talks about the next week or whatever it is."
These Cowboys do not dwell on the close calls; they instead use them to become increasingly convinced in the inevitability of their success. They may sweat out the double-digit comebacks, like when they trailed the Cyclones 24–7 in the second quarter of last Saturday's game. But these games only reinforce their belief in an ending that is preordained, no matter how hard it is to see. "We would like for [those tight games] not to happen so often," Ogbah said, "but we'll take it as it comes."
This is, after all, the team that believes it will not lose. It only has to be right two more times.