Oklahoma State's success has been a shocker -- even to the Cowboys
Many picked the Cowboys to finish last, but they're 8-1 and atop the South
Coach Mike Gundy wasn't sure how he'd replace Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant
Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon have offense on record-breaking pace
Let's start with a mea culpa. Long ago, during the summer, I pegged Oklahoma State to finish, um, 1-7 in the Big 12 South. That's tied for last, if you're counting -- and Cowboys fans have been, ever since. Three-fourths of the way through the season, the Cowboys are in first place.
Oops. My bad.
"I can promise you're not the only one," junior quarterback Brandon Weeden said. And it was also encouraging to hear coach Mike Gundy say he could understand why people had the Cowboys as a six-win team.
"We've never had tradition here at Oklahoma State in football," Gundy said.
Blunt, but refreshing. And his point was obvious. The Cowboys had to replace several important cogs from one of their better teams in recent history. Standout quarterback Zac Robinson was gone, and so was all-everything receiver Dez Bryant and four offensive linemen. Also, the Cowboys needed to replace seven starters from a perennially suspect defense.
When roster turnover happens at Texas -- when, say, Colt McCoy finally exhausts his eligibility -- we all figure the Longhorns will just plug in new guys and play for another championship. Not at Oklahoma State, where a rebuilding year seemed likely, maybe even to the head coach.
"We had no evidence we could win more," Gundy said. "I couldn't have argued with anybody."
Until now, because boy, were we off. The preseason predictions have been turned upside down. We've all watched, stunned, as Garrett Gilbert and the Longhorns unraveled. Meanwhile, powered by an offense that's on pace to break most significant school records, Oklahoma State is 8-1. The 12th-ranked Cowboys sit atop the Big 12 South standings. They're favored to beat Texas on Saturday in Austin -- you won't find too many people willing to bet on the Longhorns -- and if they do, they might be on their way to unprecedented success.
"We certainly are in as good a position now as we ever have been," Gundy said.
And so after admitting my guilt, the question was simple: Where did these guys come from?
Begin with the quarterback, a 27-year-old former baseball player who has gone from No. 3 on the Cowboys' depth chart to No. 3 nationally in passing. A year ago, Weeden was buried on the depth chart and had shown "zero," according to Gundy, "to ever make us think he could perform well."
Through nine games, Weeden has averaged 331 yards passing, with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He's on track to break the school's single-season passing records, and perhaps to become the school's first all-conference quarterback -- ever. Yeah, he's a pretty nice trigger for new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's spread passing attack.
Weeden was recruited initially by the Cowboys out of nearby Edmond (Okla.) Santa Fe High, but they didn't try too hard because the word was out that he would play baseball. A second-round draft pick by the Yankees in 2002, he played five seasons and never rose above Class A ball.
"We had forgotten about him," Gundy said, "until he showed back up and wanted to walk on."
Oklahoma State almost forgot about him after that, too. With the Yankees paying his tuition, Weeden joined the Cowboys' roster, but that's about all he did. With the record-setting Robinson entrenched as the starter, Weeden admits he didn't work as hard as he should have. But last November, with Robinson unavailable because of an ailing shoulder, the Cowboys found themselves trailing Colorado at halftime. Alex Cate, the second-teamer, had started but been ineffective.
Weeden got the call to start the second half. He trotted into the huddle and told the offensive line: "Hey, you guys give me some time, I'll pick these guys apart and we'll come back and win this game." He threw two touchdown passes, the Cowboys rallied from an 11-point deficit to win, and if we were paying attention, we had a glimpse of life after Robinson.
The bigger development was the hiring of Holgorsen, a Mike Leach disciple who had led Houston's offense to Leach-like statistical success. He figures to be one of the guys mentioned for many of the head coaching vacancies that are open, or soon will be. But for now at Oklahoma State, he's dialing up an offense that's better than any of its predecessors, even at a school that's become known for wide-open, high-octane attacks.
"It's the best offense I've seen in a long time," Texas coach Mack Brown said of the Cowboys, who are averaging 549 yards and 46.3 points, fourth and second nationally.
Holgorsen's version of the spread passing game is a much better fit for Weeden, who is more of a pocket passer than Robinson (and who, it must be noted, has undergone a transformation in practice and study habits). But significantly, Holgorsen's offense is more balanced than Leach's -- he actually likes running the football -- which leads us to another important factor in the Cowboys' success. Two years ago, Kendall Hunter was considered one of the nation's top running backs. Last season, nagged by an ankle injury, his production dropped off dramatically, but he's healthy again and ranks third nationally in rushing at 137.8 yards per game.
The last piece of the puzzle might be the most surprising. Sophomore receiver Justin Blackmon has morphed from a decent player into a game-breaker. He's the nation's leading receiver (161 yards per game, with eight straight 100-yard games), but that doesn't begin to describe his big-play impact. The comparisons with Bryant have already begun -- former Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree might be a better one -- and they're warranted. Blackmon was suspended for a game two weeks ago against Kansas State after he was arrested and charged with DUI for going 92 mph in a 65 zone at 3:45 a.m. on his way back from a Dallas Cowboys game.
But when he's played, he's been fabulous.
It all adds up to a very potent combination. In a win last week over Baylor, Weeden threw for a school-record 435 yards. Blackmon, back from suspension, had 173 yards receiving on 13 catches, and ran for a 69-yard touchdown. Hunter scored two touchdowns.
It was an unlikely Big 12 South showdown. The Bears had whipped Texas in Austin (admittedly, not as big of a deal these days) and with dynamic quarterback Robert Griffin III, were bowl-eligible for the first time in forever. They rolled into Stillwater with plenty of momentum and ... got rolled. The Cowboys led 41-7 before settling for a 55-28 win, and if they hadn't already, pundits everywhere (OK, at least this one) began pondering how they'd been so wrong -- and wondering where these guys are headed.
Oklahoma State has to be considered the favorite to win the Big 12 South and reach the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time -- where the likely opponent would be Nebraska, which handed the Cowboys their only loss. They've been in this position before, of course. A year ago, they were a trendy pick -- hey, they graced one of four regional covers of Sports Illustrated's 2009 preseason college football issue -- to make a big splash. But meeting expectations proved difficult in a division dominated by Texas and archrival Oklahoma. This year, as we've noted, expectations were very low. And it might have been a very good thing.
"It's been a lot of fun and it's been easier," Gundy said, "because nobody's talked about us all year. They hadn't talked about us until maybe a week ago."
They're talking now. And the volume will increase with a win Saturday in Austin. The Cowboys have beaten Texas just once since the formation of the Big 12. Also remaining on the schedule is Oklahoma, which has beaten its Bedlam rival seven straight times. A year ago, the Sooners denied the Cowboys a potential BCS bowl berth, winning 27-0 in Norman.
Many people figured it was the Cowboys' last, best chance for a while. Instead, they're making another bid. Given Texas' rapid deterioration and Oklahoma's continuing road struggles (Bedlam is in Stillwater on Nov. 27), the Cowboys might actually be in better position than before.
Gundy says the Cowboys are building tradition, ready for a breakthrough. His quarterback agrees. And the evidence appears to back the claim.
"A lot of people didn't expect a lot of us," Weeden said. "They didn't expect us to be where we're at. But we're in a good spot right now."