Mike Gundy has done amazing work in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Nothing which happened Saturday night was going to change that fact. Nothing which happens for the rest of this season can change that fact.
Oklahoma State — not Oklahoma, not Nebraska, not Texas, not a blue-chip program — should have played for the 2011 national title. It could have won the 2013 Big 12 title. A bounce here, a play there, and the Cowboys would have been the Big 12’s best program over the past five years heading into Saturday’s battle with the Baylor Bears.
In 2011, Oklahoma State did lose in November as a hunted team in the middle of a championship chase, but even with that setback at Iowa State, the Cowboys deserved to face LSU for all the marbles in New Orleans.
It was in 2013 that the Cowboys lost the kind of game a team regrets.
We wrote about the conclusion of the 2013 Big 12 season a few days ago. Oklahoma State thrived in a spoiler’s role against Baylor in November of 2013, knocking the Bears from the ranks of the unbeaten. However, when Oklahoma State then controlled its fate in the Big 12 a short while later, the Cowboys faced a team — wait for it — which played both a backup quarterback and multiple quarterbacks on a significant Saturday. The Oklahoma Sooners, trotting out Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson and Blake Bell, didn’t inhabit the most advantageous situation. Yet, the Sooners muscled up on defense and created just enough offense to deny the Cowboys another league championship.
As the hunter in 2013, Oklahoma State flourished. As the hunted, the Cowboys — even at home — flinched.
When one realizes that Baylor:
A) brought a backup quarterback (turned starter), Jarrett Stidham, into this Saturday evening’s game against the Pokes;
B) wound up playing third-stringer (and current No. 2 man) Chris Johnson after Stidham got injured late in the first half;
C) had not won in Stillwater since 1939 (the year Kansas State coach Bill Snyder was born)…
… the odds in favor of OSU had to be pretty good.
The ghosts of 2013 — in which the Cowboys lost hold of the Big 12 race by falling at home to an opponent with quarterback problems — could have been banished.
Instead, Art Briles haunted Oklahoma State into the coming week… and very possibly, into a long offseason.
Oklahoma State has climbed so high and reached such a long way — this season, yes, but also throughout Mike Gundy’s tenure. Yet, this persistent (first-world) problem of losing as the hunted team will linger in Stillwater for another year.
Baylor — shadowed by its own oppressive history, one with a 76-year history — decided to show that the Stillwater Curse no longer claimed the Bears’ souls.
It is easy to get wrapped up in all the long balls that get pitched around the ballyards of the Big 12. The league is often an aerial circus, with gunslinging quarterbacks able to light up the night sky in an instant. Yet, for all of that flash and dash, Big 12 offenses generally require the ability to run the ball in order to take pressure off the quarterbacks who are so conspicuously talented.
Saturday night, Baylor did this, and Oklahoma State did not.
The Bears cracked the 300-yard barrier late in the fourth quarter. Even though Stidham (preceding his injury) and Johnson (who played a lot better than nearly everyone — Briles excepted — had a right to anticipate) performed at a high level, they enjoyed the benefits of a strong running game, one which kept Oklahoma State’s defense off balance.
Baylor established the tempo it wanted, while also regaining a double-figure lead after a 14-0 surge enabled the Pokes to tie the game at 14 in the first quarter. When Baylor grabbed a 24-14 lead in the second quarter, nothing about the game felt safe or certain, given Oklahoma State’s consistent ability to wipe out deficits of 10 to 17 points throughout the season.
Yet, it was precisely then that Baylor established a different tone and trajectory compared to the other games in which Oklahoma State made a massive comeback in 2015. This time, the Cowboys could no longer continue to convert third-and-long situations, in many ways the central reason they entered this game 10-0. Baylor’s front seven, outplayed by Oklahoma’s offensive line a week earlier, felt insulted and, instructively, played like it. Timely sacks blunted Oklahoma State drives. Pressure on Mason Rudolph forced the OSU signal caller out of his comfort zone. As a result, the Pokes were not able to make another surge following their 14-point first-quarter burst.
Baylor suffocated Oklahoma State in the second half and won the game without much of any drama.
The waters of euphoria had been stilled in Boone Pickens Stadium. Baylor had conquered the town where it hadn’t been able to win since the monts preceding America’s involvement in World War II.
The pressures of college football are in some ways a part of all sports, but in certain ways, they cannot be replicated by other sports and other leagues. In September, teams feel the pressure of the new season, as they try to prove themselves. October is when teams face opponents which — in many cases — have shrugged off September sluggishness and become a lot more formidable. October brings the pressure of winning within a context of growth and change.
Late November — this weekend — poses yet another kind of test: Can you win a high-stakes game the week before the in-state rivalry or the national showcase you’ve been anticipating for the previous 51 weeks?
Ohio State had Michigan the following week. Michigan State ambushed the Buckeyes.
Houston had that big game with Navy coming up… but Connecticut knocked the Cougars from the ranks of the unbeaten.
North Carolina had N.C. State on the horizon… and nearly got tripped up by Virginia Tech.
In Stillwater, Bedlam beckoned in a week, but Baylor bottled up Oklahoma State just when it seemed the Cowboys — no longer needing to play a road game in 2015 — had the path to the playoff neatly mapped out.
Oklahoma State can still win Bedlam and (with a TCU victory over Baylor) claim the Big 12 in the end. Yet, the Cowboys now need help to claim their conference in 2015. On the night when they controlled their fate, they once again fell at home, as was the case in 2013.
Baylor — able to use the Oklahoma loss as a wake-up call and not a destructive moment — offered one more reminder that going unbeaten in a college football regular season is one of the toughest feats to achieve in sports.
Mike Gundy has still overachieved at Oklahoma State. He just wishes that when his team calls the shots at home in the final stages of a Big 12 season, the Cowboys can one day deliver the dagger that hasn’t been found in either 2013 or 2015.