I was there in 2009 when Oklahoma State officially opened the newly-renovated Lewis Field, renamed now to Boone Pickens Stadium after the booster that paid for the revamp. The Georgia Bulldogs were in town led by a guy you may have heard of, a quarterback named Matt Stafford. OSU had a ferocious trio on offense with Zac Robinson at quarterback, Dez Bryant at wideout, and Kendall Hunter at running back. Bryant and Hunter were first team All-Americans in 2008 (Hunter would be again in 2010) and based on the returning firepower the Cowboys started the season ranked inside the top 10. The home team won that day 24-10 and I’m not sure I’ve seen Stillwater, Oklahoma as electric as it was that day except for the night of the Bedlam win in 2011.
The excitement was short lived. The next week Houston came to town. It was a gray, rainy day and on the arm of Case Keenum and the play calling of the OC Dana Holgorsen the Cougars upset the then 5th-ranked Cowboys. It was a serious blow to the expectations that season, but it turned out to just be the tip of the iceberg. Before conference play started OSU was without Bryant and Hunter.
The NCAA suspended Bryant for the entire season for failure to disclose eating dinner at Deion Sander’s house. Hunter was lost to injury and wouldn’t play again that season except for sparingly in the bowl game. Robinson was hurt in the win against Texas Tech and missed the next game against Colorado (where a second half comeback introduced the world to Brandon Weeden) and then was obviously hampered against OU and Ole Miss to end the season.
That year’s team had every reason to fold up and only win five or six games. No one would’ve blamed them with the injuries and suspensions. Instead the team stepped up. Keith Toston filled in for Hunter and ended up being first team All-Big 12. Cornerback Perrish Cox and offense tackle Russell Okung were All-Americans. Bryant’s production was replaced by committee with six receivers totaling over 100 yards but none having more than 515. In a year that the team could’ve phoned it in they didn’t and instead went 6-2 in the Big 12 and played in the Cotton Bowl.
I’ve always said 2009 was Mike Gundy’s best coaching job. Sure he won the Big 12 and a Fiesta Bowl in 2011 and was a field goal away from playing for a National Championship, but that team was loaded. I could’ve coached a team to 10 wins with that offense and a defense that forced 40 turnovers. No, 2009 was special. Role players became stars. Players were unselfish. Next man up. All that stuff.
It was Gundy’s coaching opus and right now the Cowboys need that Gundy back. Luckily there may be evidence that maybe some of 2009 Gundy is still lurking in there.
The game plan for Boise State game took guts. After not being able to run it at all the first two games Gundy and his staff decided that despite the rushing troubles that was the best plan with so few scholarship receivers available. It was also gutsy to stick to it. Getting one of the starting linemen back helped but with the exception of a 75 yard score the offense was stagnant and the “run the ball, control the clock, shorten the game” had led to a 20-7 deficit late in the second quarter. After finally managing to sustain a drive right before the half and then turning a Boise turnover into a touchdown the score ended up 21-20 with OSU on top at the half. The score held thanks to the defense clamping down and the “run the ball, bleed the clock” plan working well enough to do everything but score.
It would’ve been easy to panic. Gundy could’ve got on his headset in the second quarter and told Kasey Dunn “this isn’t working, they’re pulling away, we need to start throwing,” but he didn’t. Instead he trusted his assistants, trusted the plan he had helped them make, and trusted his players. A wise move, because in my opinion, they would not have won with a still inconsistent Spencer Sanders throwing the ball to green wideouts in a road game played in the wind and drizzle.
It took a smidge of luck, but the unconventional attack worked. Oklahoma State looks like it’s going to need a lot of both guts and luck this season. Instead of “this is what we do to win” it’s going to be “what are we going to do to win?” Gundy and company are going to have to stay creative.
Installing an unconventional game plans takes trust between the coaches and players, and rushing it 55 times and throwing it just 13 like they did at Boise is very unconventional for the Cowboys. Against Kansas State the game plan will probably be another one that feels a bit off for Oklahoma State. Winning at Boise helped I’m sure but if there’s any doubt in the player’s minds that Gundy can’t win games this way they just need to look up the 2009 team that lost two of the best offensive players in school history and still won nine games.
Nine wins isn’t an impossible goal in what so far seems like a Big 12 conference without clear top teams. If they trust in what Gundy and his staff do and buy in maybe, just maybe role players will become stars. Players will unselfish. After all it’s next man up. All that stuff.
A bit more of that luck wouldn’t hurt either.