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Only BYU, Washington and Fullerton State won more games than Oklahoma State last year, but every silver lining has its cloud. The Big Eight was still Tornado Alley for OSU, which lost to Oklahoma and Nebraska yet again. The Cornhuskers beat the Cowboys 17-3, and State then blew an Orange Bowl bid by falling to the Sooners 24-14.
So what's new? The Cowboys have lost 17 of their last 18 games against Oklahoma (the victory came in 1976), making the intrastate rivalry as exciting as feeding time at the zoo. State's record against Nebraska is even worse. The last time the Cowboys beat the Huskers, JFK was in the White House. No player on the '85 squad had even been born when that game was played.
"You try not to have a big obsession about those two teams, 'cause nobody beats 'em much," says second-year coach Pat Jones. "But this is probably our most talented senior class, so we've got a fighting chance to beat both of them. Heck, we've come close in the past." How close? Well, two years ago Nebraska batted away two State passes in the end zone in the final seconds to win 14-10. OSU then lost 21-20 to Oklahoma after leading 20-3 with 10 minutes to go.
When two teams dominate another as thoroughly as the Sooners and Cornhuskers have dominated the Cowboys, there has to be a reason, and senior Leslie O'Neal, an All-America defensive tackle, thinks he can put his finger on it: capitalism. " Nebraska plays consistently and waits for you to make mistakes—then capitalizes on them," he says. "OU tries to force you to make mistakes—then capitalizes on them."
Sounds hopeless, but recent Cowboy teams have matched up favorably with both of their Big Eight tormentors. Last season OSU's offense was as balanced as a clock mechanism, gaining 181.5 yards per game on the ground and 181.8 in the air. Quarterback Rusty Hilger is gone, but his replacement, sophomore Ronnie Williams, is touted in Stillwater as the next Turner Gill—a former Nebraska star, naturally. "He's what you're looking for," says Jones. "He can probably throw the football through the press box." When he isn't throwing, Williams will most often hand the ball to sophomore running back Thurman Thomas, who last year rushed for 843 yards and was MVP in the Gator Bowl victory over South Carolina. Says Jones, "If he stays healthy, Thurman will be the best back that ever played here."
The defense is led by O'Neal, who last season made 146 tackles, had 14 sacks, deflected six passes, forced three fumbles and blocked two kicks. One Big Eight coach calls O'Neal "the most dominant defensive player in the conference." What OSU lacks is depth. "We've never been blessed with two-deep guys," Jones says. "We have to move players around to put our best 11 out there." All-conference cornerback Mark Moore switches to safety, James Harris moves from end to linebacker, and John Washington, a starting noseguard for two seasons, now plays tackle. Juggling that kind of talent worries Jones, but he has little choice. "It's not like at Nebraska," he says, "where if one guy leaves, you just move another guy up."
But if the Cowboys are lean, they are also hungry to erase their image as Big Eight also-rans. "We've got some unfinished business," says O'Neal. "Our seniors will feel cheated if we go 11 and 1, finish second or third in the country but have to admit Nebraska or Oklahoma beat us all four years."