It's easy to forget that Oklahoma State had an excellent chance to be undefeated in '83. Against Nebraska, a team it hasn't beaten in 23 years, the Cowboys led 10-7 at the half and lost only 14-10. The next week State was leading Oklahoma 20-3 with nine minutes to go, but then all hell broke loose as the Sooners rallied to win 21-20. Toss in losses of 21-20 to Kansas State and 16-10 to Missouri, and Oklahoma State was only 16 points away from a perfect season.
The Cowboys haven't lost many players—just six first-stringers—but they did lose their coach, Jimmy Johnson, to Miami on June 5. His departure wasn't the trauma it might have been. In December, Johnson had expressed an interest in vacancies at Arkansas and Rice, thus serving notice that he wasn't long for Stillwater. When Johnson left, Oklahoma State quickly promoted assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Pat Jones to the top job.
Last season Oklahoma State led the nation in fumble recoveries (27) and interceptions (26). These turnovers were the result of various stunts, blitzes—State blitzed at least 25% of the time—and blazing speed. The slowest Cowboy, nose-guard John Washington, runs a 4.7 40. Tackle Rodney Harding is a converted outside linebacker. One end, Harry Roberts, returns kick-offs; he took one 90 yards for a TD against Missouri. The other, James Ham, went 69 yards with an interception for a TD against Texas A&M. The D also has smarts—leading tackier Matt Monger was an academic all-conference middle linebacker—and spirit. "Like a pack of dogs," says Jones, "they run together all the time." The pick of the pack is tackle Leslie O'Neal, who had 22 tackles, including a sack, against Nebraska last year.
Although Ernest Anderson, who beat out Herschel Walker for the NCAA rushing title in 1982, has departed, he won't be missed a great deal. Anderson was injured much of last season, and Shawn Jones, who took his place, ran for 924 yards, earning all-conference honors. Jones will share time with Kenny Zachary, who runs the 40 in 4.32 and had a 10.36 100 meters at the Kansas relays this spring; Charlie Crawford, who looks slow at 4.6; and freshman Thurman Thomas, one of the most heavily recruited running backs in Texas.
The quarterback is senior Rusty Hilger. Oklahoma State was the only school to offer him a scholarship, and his was the last of the Cowboys' 29 grants in 1980. Injured most of 1982, Hilger completed 94 of 171 passes (55%) for 1,247 yards last season. Before the Cowboys' 24-14 defeat of Baylor in the Bluebonnet Bowl, Hilger was introduced to New Age Thinking, an audio cassette series dealing with self-esteem, self-confidence and potential. Against the Bears, Hilger had completed 12 of 17 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns when he got knocked silly shortly before the half. "I was more relaxed," he says, "more confident. I knew there was nothing I couldn't do. Everything I did was the result of using the information on the tapes."
Of Oklahoma State's near-misses in '83, Hilger says, "Last season we got in a stress situation, and we folded. It was all mental. We've been told for 20 years that we can't beat Oklahoma, so we did everything in our power to beat ourselves. It's that doubt in the back of somebody's mind—when he says, 'Hey, this is Nebraska, we're not supposed to win'—that makes it come true. I'm a Columbus, and I need to get my people to follow. If we can believe that we're going to beat these guys, we're going to be trouble...a lot of trouble."
The Cowboys open at Arizona State, whose defense also features endless blitzes and stunts. Says Hilger, the positive thinker, "I personally like a team that blitzes. If they want to blitz, fine. We have something for them." The grudge games are at Nebraska and Oklahoma. Kicker Larry Roach was all-conference as a freshman and sophomore, but in '83, he missed a few field goals that were automatic in previous years. A return to form by Roach may help Oklahoma State win the close ones that slipped away last year.