Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy already has fond memories of the Holiday Bowl. A win over Oregon in this year’s game will also give him something to be happy about for years to come.
Trying to lead the 13th-ranked Cowboys to a school record-tying 10th win, Gundy will become the first person to play and coach in a Holiday Bowl when his team takes on the No. 15 Ducks for the first time on Dec. 30 in San Diego.
Gundy is in the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame after completing 20 of 24 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns in Oklahoma State’s 62-14 victory over Wyoming in 1988, the only appearance in the Holiday Bowl for the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State (9-3) is returning to this year’s game because it was the highest-ranked remaining team in the Big 12 after No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Texas were selected for BCS games and eighth-ranked Texas Tech was picked by the Cotton Bowl.
“We’re very excited about heading to San Diego for the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl,” Gundy said. “It was a tremendous experience for me as a player and I’m happy our team will get to enjoy San Diego and the festivities that surround a great bowl game. … We look forward to playing an excellent Oregon team.”
The Ducks (9-3) and Cowboys are very similar, with each team boasting an outstanding rushing attack and a high-scoring offense. Oregon is averaging 41.9 points while Oklahoma puts up 41.6 per game, and the Ducks have rushed for 3,334 yards compared to 3,072 for the Cowboys.
“They rush the football very well and statistically they are ahead of us in that area,” said Gundy, who received a new seven-year, $15.7 million contract Dec. 5 after guiding the Cowboys to just the sixth nine-win regular season in school history. “I think they use multiple formations and have skilled players that make plays.”
One of those skilled Oregon players is senior running back Jeremiah Johnson, who finished the regular season with 1,082 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior LeGarrette Blount, a 6-foot-2, 229-pound junior college transfer, set a school record with 16 rushing TDs and also ran for 928 yards.
Oklahoma State is led on the ground by sophomore running back Kendall Hunter, who rushed for a conference-best 1,518 yards on just 228 carries and also scored 14 touchdowns.
“Both of these teams run the ball really well,” Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. “But in the final analysis the team that plays the best defense in the game is going to win.”
Oklahoma State’s defense didn’t play well down the stretch. The Cowboys opened the season with seven straight wins, holding opponents to 20.6 points, but went on to give up 48.3 in three losses in their last five games. Each of those defeats, though, came to teams ranked in the top 3 at the time.
The Cowboys ended the regular season with a 61-41 defeat to the Sooners, who went on to win the Big 12 title game and will be playing top-ranked Florida for the national championship Jan. 8. Oklahoma State allowed Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford to go 30-of-44 for 370 yards and four TDs, falling to 110th out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams against the pass.
“We do have a bowl game to finish the season with, and we can still finish with a win,” Gundy said. “And what the seniors need to know is that they’re responsible for turning this program around and bringing it to the level it is right now. They’ve provided great leadership.”
To make matters worse for Oklahoma State, it will be without defensive coordinator Tim Beckman, who has accepted the head coaching position at Toledo, as it faces an Oregon team riding high after its latest win.
The Ducks had a chance to help end Pac-10 rival Oregon State’s Rose Bowl hopes in their final game of the regular season, and they routed the Beavers 65-38 on Nov. 29. Southern California beat UCLA the following week to earn the spot in Pasadena.
Oregon finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, averaging 51.7 points behind the play of sophomore Jeremiah Masoli, who completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 716 yards with six TDs and no interceptions. He also rushed 34 times for 188 yards and four scores over that span.
Masoli started fall practice as Oregon’s third-string quarterback, behind Nate Costa and Justin Roper. Costa, though, suffered a knee injury a week before the opener that required season-ending surgery and Roper missed nearly four weeks because of a knee injury and an illness.
Masoli’s counterpart, Zac Robinson, passed for 2,735 yards with 24 TDs and eight interceptions this season for Oklahoma State. He’ll be facing an Oregon defense that is 108th in the nation against the pass.
“We can talk about the offenses coming in but I have a feeling well be talking about the defenses going out,” Bellotti said.
Oregon State is led defensively by senior Nick Reed, who topped the nation with five fumble recoveries and was second with a school record-tying 13 sacks.
The Cowboys will be making their sixth bowl appearance in the last seven seasons, while the Ducks are heading to a bowl game for the fourth straight year and 12th time in 14 seasons under Bellotti.
Oregon is appearing in the Holiday Bowl for the third time this decade after beating Texas 35-30 in 2000 and losing 17-14 to Oklahoma in 2005.