Oklahoma State entered the season with hopes of winning its first Big 12 title, but a stacked division and a brutal schedule have rendered that dream unattainable. It’s not too late, however, for the Cowboys to achieve their winningest season in 20 years.
Already eliminated from contention for the conference title, the 11th-ranked Cowboys look to bounce back from a lopsided defeat and improve their standing for bowl season when they visit Colorado on Saturday night.
Oklahoma State players have been wearing wristbands that read “Big 12 Champs” since the preseason, but their chances of representing the deep Big 12 South in the conference title game are over after last week’s 56-20 loss to No. 2 Texas Tech.
The Cowboys (8-2, 4-2) could conceivably finish tied atop the division, but would lose tiebreakers to go to the Big 12 championship game.
Though they’re disappointed that their initial goal for the season is out of reach, the Cowboys can still call this a successful year, particularly if they finish strong. With wins over Colorado and archrival Oklahoma in its final two games, Oklahoma State can record its first 10-win season since 1988, when Barry Sanders won the Heisman Trophy.
The Cowboys are also in line for a high-profile bowl bid, perhaps even their first BCS berth if everything falls just right over the next several weeks.
“You start the season with certain goals, and then as long as you can keep your sights on those goals, they stay focused and in the right frame of mind,” coach Mike Gundy said. “If a goal changes, that’s not what you wanted but it’s OK.”
The latest challenge for Gundy’s team is to look past last week’s loss and be ready to face a Colorado team the Cowboys are expected to beat.
“Now what the new goal is for us is to win nine games,” Gundy said. “This team is mature and has good leadership. … I’d like to think these guys will come back and prepare well to play on Saturday.”
Gundy sees room for improvement on both sides of the ball. Oklahoma State, which averaged 45.3 points in its first nine games, was held to a season-low last week and also failed to total 400 yards for the first time since its season opener. The Cowboys’ uncharacteristic inability to move the ball made their defensive struggles against one of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s most prolific offenses even more glaring.
“Where I was disappointed was offensively. We had a couple chances there to go strike-for-strike with them when they were scoring and we didn’t do that,” Gundy said. “So, I was disappointed in us as a group because we didn’t go match them.”
Defensive coordinator Tim Beckman had his own list of complaints, saying the Cowboys missed about twice as many tackles against the Red Raiders as they’d been missing in an average game this season. He said nearly half of the Red Raiders’ yardage came after contact.
“You can’t do that and be successful and play good defense,” Beckman said. “It all comes down to the basics. We’ve got to get better at the fundamentals.”
The Cowboys will try to return to form against the Buffaloes (5-5, 2-4), who are coming off their best performance in a conference game this season. Colorado recorded new highs in conference play in total yards (422) and points in a 28-24 comeback win over Iowa State last Saturday.
The Buffaloes trailed 10-0 at halftime before Cody Hawkins took over for starting quarterback Tyler Hansen. Hawkins threw four touchdown passes in the second half to steal the victory.
“So much of great football and great teams is being able to work through the bumps and hanging in there,” said Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, Cody’s father. “Cody was a part of it, but I think it was the (entire) team that got some wind underneath their wings and got going. I give them a lot of credit for that.”
Hawkins, a sophomore, has split time under center with the freshman Hansen in each of Colorado’s last four games. Though coach Hawkins hasn’t officially announced a starter for Saturday, he has hinted that the job will go to Hawkins with Hansen getting some reps later in the game.
The Buffaloes hope their quarterback tandem can help them build on last week’s emotional win and beat a ranked Big 12 rival for the first time this season. Colorado defeated then-No. 21 West Virginia in non-conference play Sept. 18, but has dropped its three conference games against ranked teams by a combined margin of 126-28.
Colorado has won four of six meetings with Oklahoma State since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996, claiming a 26-17-1 advantage in the all-time series. The Buffaloes and Cowboys haven’t faced each other since Colorado’s 34-0 road win in 2005.