Cowboys look to seize opportunity, avoid history against 'Horns

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Every day during this, his senior season, Andre Sexton has looked around at the fancy details, the elegant touches, and the sheer opulence -- more like a luxury hotel, really, than a football facility -- and marveled at the opportunity. Boone Pickens Stadium, freshly renovated and expanded, every bell and whistle -- well, it's...

"Amazing," the Oklahoma State linebacker said. "Every part of this facility, it's just the best in the country. To get to experience it and be having a great season, it's just all falling into place, and it's better than we could have expected."

Yeah, it's remarkable what $286 million will do. And as long as we're talking expectations -- and return on investment -- let's discuss Saturday. Pickens built a stadium in his name for this, for Halloween night in Stillwater, for the chance to showcase something truly mind-blowing.

For most, Texas-Oklahoma State storyline is simple: It's the last real chance for a slip on Texas' road to the Big 12 title, and from there to the BCS Championship Game. But it's also the Cowboys' biggest opportunity.

Maybe ever.

In Mike Gundy's five seasons, Oklahoma State has developed a reputation for explosive offenses, flirted with the national spotlight and emerged as a contender in the tough Big 12 South -- almost. The Cowboys have beaten nine of their 11 conference opponents. Can you guess which notches they've yet to carve into Pistol Pete's gun belt?

In-state rival Oklahoma. And Texas, everybody's rival. Gundy's Cowboys have gone 0-8 against the Big 12's big boys, which is why any conversation about the league starts with Texas, or with Oklahoma, and usually ends there. Texas Tech has been a nice story, with the mad scientist's passing fancy; Oklahoma State an interesting sidebar, with the coach's rant and the tycoon's millions and that brand new stadium.

Before the season, quarterback Zac Robinson told reporters the Cowboys' goal, as always, was to win the Big 12 South. And he added: "That goal is more realistic this year."

That goal is more realistic this week than back in July, when he said it. Primetime, No. 13 Oklahoma State against No. 3 Texas for control of the Big 12 South race. For the unbeaten Longhorns, it's about survival. For the Cowboys, it's the intersection of tremendous opportunity and discouraging history.

"We know we have to beat them," Sexton said, "to get to the Big 12 championship."

Someday, you figure, it might actually happen, Oklahoma State will beat Texas. Why not now?

Not to minimize how it's felt to lose to the Sooners -- we can all focus on that next month, when the Cowboys visit Norman for the annual matchup they call Bedlam -- but the recent losses to the Longhorns have been particularly painful. Texas has won 11 straight in the series. But four of the last five, going back to Les Miles' last year in Stillwater, have been the kind Gundy says he'll relive forever.

"You think about 'em all the time driving down the road," Gundy said. "You ... had another play called there. Or you had another decision that was made or something could have happened to change that game."

In 2004, in Austin, the Cowboys led the Longhorns by 28 points. In 2005, in Stillwater, by 19. Two years ago, at home again, by 21 points with 15 minutes to play.

Loss. Loss. Loss.

By comparison, last season's 28-24 defeat -- Texas batted down Robinson's pass toward the Texas end zone on the last play -- seems much less cruel. At least the Cowboys didn't blow a big lead.

"We've been really close," Robinson told the Tulsa World. "It's been frustrating that we haven't been able to finish it off."

Someone asked Gundy earlier this week: Are the Cowboys snakebit?

"I'm not so sure it's snakebit," Gundy said. "I just feel like when we've played Texas, they've had very good football teams."

But a moment later, he admitted: "You'd like to eventually find a way to get it done."

Maybe now is the time. Remember when Oklahoma State beat Georgia, way back when the season started? It was supposed to be the Cowboys' coming-out party, the stamp of validation for a program that had become everyone's trendy top 10 pick. Only then it turned out Georgia wasn't, well, all that good. It was still a big win, of course. But what happened next was a big loss.

Case Keenum and the Houston Cougars came to Stillwater, into that shiny new stadium, and busted some BCS.

"A reality check," Oklahoma State tight end Cooper Bassett told The Oklahoman, from "cloud nine" to "ground zero."

That's the last time most people thought much about the Cowboys. Except when All-America receiver Dez Bryant was suspended for lying to the NCAA about his relationship with Deion Sanders (on Tuesday, the NCAA announced the penalty would last until next September), Oklahoma State has operated under the radar, away from the spotlight.

So, a quick refresher: It's not just Bryant. The Cowboys have been without running back Kendall Hunter for most of the season because of a bad ankle. He dressed for the Baylor game last week, but didn't play; his status for Saturday is uncertain, but unlikely. That's two huge weapons Oklahoma State is missing.

But Oklahoma State has been winning, anyway. And getting better.

Robinson -- who probably should appear on most Heisman watch lists in this season of no real Heisman contenders -- leads the Big 12 in passing efficiency; he's thrown only three interceptions. Several wide receivers have emerged to fill Bryant's void. The defense, which has been the Cowboys' demise so many times over the years, has developed into a solid, reliable piece of the winning equation.

Odds makers favor Texas by more than a touchdown. At first glance, there's no reason to suspect anything different. But Brown paid the ultimate compliment earlier in the week when he described the Longhorns' attitude: "They're treating this like the Oklahoma game."

The Cowboys are 6-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big 12. They're riding a five-game winning streak. And now they've arrived, again, at the chance to take that next step, to grab control of the Big 12 South. Just like last season, when the Cowboys rolled into Austin unbeaten, at 7-0 before losing four of their last six games, including a bowl.

This team, according to Sexton, is more mature, and bubbles with "a very quiet confidence."

"I think we're capable of reaching all our goals," Sexton said. "I think we can be as good as we want to be."

Boone Pickens Stadium will be "wired up," Sexton said, and the Cowboys will be "fired up," playing in a sea of orange and black. This might be Texas' last significant hurdle en route to Pasadena. But Oklahoma State is one Halloween trick away from taking control of the Big 12 South race, and creating chaos in the BCS standings.

The possibilities are frightening.