A late-season surge, a young quarterback with upside and a user-friendly schedule have combined to lift the spirits of Oklahoma State coaches and players heading into the 2015 season.
Mix in a defense that returns seven starters from a 7-6 team, led by last year’s Big 12 defensive lineman of the year (Emmanuel Ogbah), and coach Mike Gundy makes it clear he is not willing to allow his team to be dismissed from Big 12 title talk as easily as the Cowboys were dismissed by preseason pollsters.
“I think, if we play well and take care of the ball, that we’ll have an opportunity to win the league,” said Gundy, whose unranked squad will face all three of the Big 12’s highest-ranked teams in the preseason polls (TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma) in Stillwater, Okla. “We have good young players. We’ve got some depth. We should have an opportunity to win the league.”
That represents a monumental turnaround from where the program stood last November while mired in a five-game losing streak and struggling to find an offensive pulse. Moving quarterback Mason Rudolph into the starting lineup for OSU’s final three games jump-started the offense.
It cost the promising freshman his redshirt season. But Rudolph’s impact proved pivotal in season-ending victories over Oklahoma and Washington (Cactus Bowl) that have altered attitudes and elevated expectations.
“We’ve come a long way in the last six months,” Gundy said. “I know I feel a lot better. We’ve made some great strides. We’re excited about the future and we’re all pulling together again.”
For a change, the Cowboys’ fate rests in the hands of a defense that placed more players on the preseason All-Big 12 team (three) than the offense (zero). That is a welcomed switch for Ogbah, a defensive end who led last year’s team in sacks (11) and tackles for losses (17).
But the Cowboys finished eighth among league teams in turnover margin (minus-8), tying West Virginia for the fewest forced turnovers (14) and fewest fumble recoveries (two) among Big 12 defenses. The shortfall triggered a new motto for OSU defenders: WTIB, for “We’re taking it back.”
“We want it more than we did last season. I think that’s really helped us out,” Ogbah said. “We just have that mindset now. We’ve got the mentality that we shouldn’t give up so easily. That we need to start fast and finish fast. That’s what we’ve been working on.”
After being part of a program than won 59 games during a six-year period (2008-13), cornerback Kevin Peterson found it stunning, and unacceptable, to be heading into last year’s Bedlam matchup against Oklahoma with a 5-6 record.
“Nobody’s ever used to losing. But we pushed through it and turned things around the last two games,” said Peterson, a preseason All-Big 12 selection who led the team in passes defended last season (13). “That brings confidence and trust to the team for this year. It’s fun to see that people’s hard work has paid off and other people have noticed our defense.
“But at the same time, it’s just a name on a piece of paper. If you have a bad season, nobody is going to remember that you were on the Big 12 preseason list. We’ve got to keep working and be the best we can.”
In addition to Rudolph, who threw for 853 yards and six touchdowns in his three starts last season, the Cowboys have a pair of intriguing junior college transfers at running back (Chris Carson, Todd Mays).
The offense will have eight games to find its footing before facing a season-defining stretch of November games in Stillwater against TCU (Nov. 7), Baylor (Nov. 21) and Oklahoma (Nov. 28).
Ogbah knows OSU projects to be the underdog in those contests and he welcomes that role.
“I kind of like being the underdog because underdogs feel like they have a lot to prove,” Ogbah said. “It makes you want to fight more and play harder.”
If the Cowboys’ defense improves the team’s turnover margin, Peterson said players can back up Gundy’s title talk.
“Definitely. We want the Big 12 championship,” Peterson said. “We’re going to go for it any way we can get it. If that means going undefeated, fine. Just doing whatever we’ve got to do to get the trophy, that’s just the biggest thing.”
Last year’s record: 7-6
Bowl result: Beat Washington 30-22 in Cactus Bowl
Opener: Sept. 3 at Central Michigan
Players to watch: DE Emmanuel Ogbah, QB Mason Rudolph, DB Kevin Peterson
Tarrant tie: Ben Grogan, K (Arlington Martin)
Big 12 countdown
The Star-Telegram will spotlight each team leading up to TCU’s Sept. 3 season opener at Minnesota.
Tuesday: Texas Tech
Thursday: Oklahoma State
Saturday: Kansas State
Tuesday: Iowa State
Sept. 2: West Virginia