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After TCU upset, Oklahoma State hits road needing to rally

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Four years ago, Oklahoma State dropped its Big 12 opener at West Virginia. Then last season, the Cowboys did the same again at Baylor. Yet in both cases, the Pokes roared back to enter the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to win the Big 12 title.

After losing yet another conference opener last weekend to TCU, Oklahoma State knows better than most that all is not lost with a single defeat, especially early in the year. And while they took a hit, virtually all of the team’s preseason goals -- most notably a Big 12 championship -- still remain attainable going into a trip to Texas Tech this weekend.

“We know those things are still out there,” said quarterback Mason Rudolph, who termed the 44-31 loss to the Horned Frogs as a “hiccup.”

The Cowboys have overcome such early hiccups before, including with Rudolph behind center.

Two weeks after suffering a wild Hail Mary home loss to Central Michigan in 2016, the Cowboys opened Big 12 play in Waco, Texas. Oklahoma State seized control during the second half and seemed to be on its way to securing a critical comeback conference road win. Instead, a fourth quarter Justice Hill fumble at the goal line sapped Oklahoma State’s momentum, and Baylor pulled away.

The second half of that game, however, proved to be a turning point for the Pokes. And Oklahoma State took off after September, reeling off seven straight wins before running out of gas in Bedlam with the Big 12 title on the line.

“There are a lot of guys who were on this team last year, who understand being able to finish, continuing to fight,” Rudolph said. “There’s experience, there’s leadership and there’s carryover from last year you can pull from.”

A handful of fifth-year seniors have 2013’s experience to pull from, as well.

That season, the Cowboys went to Morgantown as the 11th-ranked team in the country. But a week after losing 37-0 to Maryland, West Virginia knocked off the Pokes, who struggled to move the ball all game. But those Cowboys too won seven in a row before falling to the Sooners in the regular-season finale.

“We’ve just got to be better,” said safety Tre Flowers, one of eight fifth-year seniors who were on that 2013 team. “Take things personal.”

Yet to give themselves any shot of playing in the Big 12 championship game come December, or the College Football Playoff, the Cowboys will have to be a lot better than they were Saturday. TCU quarterback Kenny Hill gashed the Oklahoma State defense on third downs. On the other side of the ball, the Horned Frogs forced four turnovers and contained Hill and the running game.

Put together, those were the differences in the outcome.

“When you snowball all of that together,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, “that's what happens to you.”

And yet, even starting from behind the pack at the bottom of the Big 12 standings, there’s still much to like about these Cowboys.

Though he had a pair of costly turnovers that led to TCU touchdowns, Rudolph remains one of the top passers in the country. For all his struggles early, Rudolph had Oklahoma State on the verge of pulling off a furious fourth-quarter rally against the Horned Frogs, until an ill-advised, intercepted double-pass sapped its momentum.

Though it was outplayed by the TCU secondary, Rudolph’s receiving corps also remains as deadly as any college football team's, led by All-American James Washington. The Cowboys might not have to face a secondary the caliber of TCU’s the rest of the Big 12 season, either.

On top of that, getting preseason All-Big 12 right tackle Zachary Crabtree back from a toe injury, perhaps as soon as this weekend, should help solidify an offensive line that was shaky on the right side Saturday.

“I think this team still has so much potential and a lot of leadership on both sides that it’s going to be something we look back on and say, ‘Hey, that was an adversity that helped build and make us stronger,’” Rudolph said.

But just because Oklahoma State has potential, and a track record of bouncing back, doesn’t mean it will be easy.

At 3-0, Texas Tech figures to be a tough test, especially with the aid of a seemingly improved defense and a night game in front of a rabid Jones Stadium crowd.

The Cowboys also have back-to-back road games at Texas and West Virginia in late October before back-to-back Big 12 champion Oklahoma arrives in Stillwater on Nov. 4. That grueling three-game stretch could offer the Cowboys an opportunity to get back in the mix for the Big 12 title game, and perhaps, with a little luck elsewhere in college football, the playoff conversation. That stretch, however, could send them into a tailspin, too.

“It’s about understanding that the season is not over just because there’s one loss,” linebacker Chad Whitener said. “You just have to keep fighting each week to be 1-0. The biggest one for us now is winning at Tech. That’s the goal right now.”

The 2013 and 2016 Cowboys didn’t allow one early loss to ruin their seasons. These Cowboys aim to keep fighting, too.

“It’s all about the next game,” Gundy said. “It’s hard to win the two or three down the line if you don’t win the one on Saturday. ... And it’ll take everything that we have to play well enough to win this Saturday.”