Oklahoma State won its 21st consecutive home opener last week against Southeastern Louisiana, but the level of competition shifts direction Saturday when Central Michigan visits Boone Pickens Stadium.
The Cowboys, ranked No. 21 in the first regular-season poll of 2016, will keep the focus similar to the opener - start fast, score early and get the early takeaway to feed momentum. That begins for the Cowboys with holding down Chippewas' quarterback Cooper Rush.
"We saw Cooper Rush last year and he's steady. He's a senior now. He's put up a lot of yardage. He's savvy to get free on rush and he's got a great touch. He can throw the deep-out cuts. Basically, besides the tight end, they've got the whole wide-fence back, and they pretty much move the ball on everybody they play," Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said of Rush, who has 68 career touchdown passes but was intercepted twice and sacked three times in the opener against FCS opponent Presbyterian.
The Cowboys handled Central Michigan last season, 24-13, but Rush held strong in the pocket and completed 28 of 41 passes for 225 yards, rushed for 51 and scored the Chippewas' touchdown. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy called Rush "a potential NFL player." NFLDraftScout.com ranks Rush as the No. 4 quarterback prospect in the 2017 draft.
"He made a lot of great throws against us (last year), right on the money," safety Tre Flowers said of Rush.
CMU coach John Bonamengo said Rush had only one bad throw in the opener, and praised the CMU running game for churning out 255 yards on the ground in the blowout. Devon Spalding had the big play last week, a 69-yard sprint down the sideline, but senior Jahray Hayes had three TD runs behind a big offensive line that Oklahoma State described as "huge."
"Each one of the offensive linemen played their butts off for us," said Spalding, who rushed for 135 yards in the opener.
If the Chippewas want to follow the footsteps of Western Michigan - a MAC neighbor which pulled the big upset at Northwestern last week - defensive improvement will be critical. Last week the improvement was there, but the Cowboys are capable of inflicting critical damage on almost every play.
Oklahoma State scored in just about every way possible last week, rolling up 60 points and handing the late part of the game to second- and third-teamers.
Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph didn't get much work, but looked quicker and leaner to Gundy. Rudolph completed 18 of 26 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, while playing about half the game.
"Mason played with a lot of intensity and a lot of focus. There were a couple of errors, but for the most part Mason came through for us. He secured the football," OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurich said. "Obviously we have to work on the quarterback-center exchange. That was a big mishap, but Mason took care of the ball and made really good decisions. There were a couple of times he has to make better decisions, so it's a work in progress, but he did a fine job. He really did some good things extending plays, making plays on his feet and avoiding the rush. Obviously all of the work he's done during the offseason paid off because he was able to be more mobile than we've ever seen, so hats off to him."
The new wheels are meaningful for Rudolph in the pocket and on the move, and it's another element of the multi-faceted running game that will make the Cowboys a challenge to defend.
"We have the mindset we can beat anybody," Hayes said. "We think we're going to go down there and beat them."