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Oklahoma's other undefeated team

While state focuses on Red River Shootout, Cowboys lay in wait

Posted: Wednesday October 6, 2004 1:37PM; Updated: Wednesday October 6, 2004 4:55PM
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Verand Morency
Vernand Morency is the No. 3-ranked rusher in the NCAA.

Texas coach Mack Brown compares it to a "mid-season bowl game." Oklahoma's Heisman-winning quarterback Jason White says it's "what you play college football for." Unless you've lived on Neptune for the past couple of decades, you know what they're talking about: Longhorns vs. Sooners, a.k.a. the Red River Shootout, which is a circus even without the annual state fair flanking it annually in Dallas' Fair Park. For this Saturday's edition of the biggest rivalry in the Big 12, if not in the country, nearly 600 media members have requested credentials, while over 70,000 fans have bought out the Cotton Bowl for the 58th straight year.

Among the thousands of people cheering in Fair Park this weekend will be Kate Murphy, whose boyfriend is All-Big 12 guard Sam Mayes. Who, uh, plays for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys will be in Boulder, Colo., not Dallas, this weekend, and, just like Texas and Oklahoma, they're undefeated.

"Yep, even Kate will be at the [OU-Texas] game," Mayes admitted on Tuesday night. "It's a big football game. She's from Oklahoma, and we're playing away, so it's understandable. I told her to have a good time."

It's sound rationale, in a rather symbolic situation. Since the Big 12 was formed in 1996, Texas and Oklahoma have five South division titles between them. Oklahoma State, which last won a league title when the conference was the Big Eight in '76, has been forced to played third fiddle in everything from regional recruiting to BCS bowling.

"Texas and Oklahoma are great rivals, and they should get the media's eye," Cowboys head coach Les Miles said. "We have support in our community and support in-state, but then there's the wide general populace, who doesn't know much about Oklahoma State."

Miles and the Cowboys are ready for that to change. And everything they're doing suggests that change is, indeed, afoot. For one, they have reloaded a star at their featured position this year: Junior Vernand Morency is the nation's No. 3 tailback -- five spots (and approximately 50 yards) ahead of Oklahoma freshman sensation Adrian Peterson in the rushing standings. Moreover, they've shown the ability to dominate even when that star isn't running the table: Last weekend at Iowa State, the Cowboys' defense held the Cyclones to seven points in its best performance to date, while Morency rushed for 44 yards less than his 187-yard average.

Most importantly, Oklahoma State has shown it has some smarts to go with its notorious smash-mouth attitude: With just one turnover and 14 pick-ups, the Cowboys have the nation's second-best turnover margin, while their 14 penalties fall well below Oklahoma's (27) and Texas' (36) totals.

"Basically, we're doing things that are customary to good football teams," Miles said.

Mayes puts it another way: "We've tasted blood in the water, so to speak. We've won, and know what it takes to win."

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Certainly, even if the Cowboys aren't routinely beating top-25 teams, they are continually besting themselves. By selling Stillwater's close-knit-community feel and an age-blind approach to playing time, Miles has been able to upgrade the team's talent pool with each passing year. The results of better recruiting are evident in the team's records: 3-8 in 2000, 4-7 in '01, 8-5 in '02 and 9-4 -- and a Cotton Bowl berth -- last year. They are at the top of their game while amid their third-best era (behind 1972-'76 and 1983-'88) since '61.

After their third-straight win last week, the Cowboys were elevated from No. 25 to No. 22 in The Associated Press poll. However, the teams they've faced -- UCLA, Tulsa and Southern Methodist -- have a combined record of 5-9. Now that football's silly season is over, the Cowboys have a lot to prove, which goes beyond sporadic upsets. In recent years, Oklahoma State has had a habit of slaying Goliaths (like Oklahoma, in both '01 and '02) while falling to pipsqueaks. Blame it on injuries, but the larger issue is depth -- which is a luxury that separates the sometime spoilers from the perennial contenders.

"We have a bit to go from going to a bowl game every year to trying to win a national championship," linebacker Paul Duren said. "But we're building. We're getting the talent where you don't have to put 50 pounds on them in order for them to play. We're improving from year-to-year and week-to-week."

That's going to be crucial against 3-1 Colorado, which has beaten Oklahoma State in the teams' past five meetings at Folsom Field. In preparation for Saturday, the Cowboys are trying to do their best this week to avoid questions about that other game -- even if it will be populated by the Nos. 2 and 5 teams in the country, not to mention high school friends and, it seems, significant others.

Mayes, though, admitted there will be one good thing to come out of the Red River Shootout.

 "Someone has to lose this weekend, and we'll still be undefeated," he said. "And they'll have to face us."

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.