Mike Gundy is making this look too easy.
On Sept. 8, his Oklahoma State Cowboys laid waste to South Alabama on the road in Mobile, racking up 505 yards of offense and 44 points. They barely broke a sweat, sitting the starters the entire fourth quarter. The next day, as the rest of the college football world spun on, Gundy left the office to go turtle hunting with his son.
He wasn't distracted, mind you. Gundy's eccentricities make the Oklahoma State head coach who he is. The very next weekend, the Cowboys went to Pittsburgh and scored 59 points, scoring touchdowns on each of their first seven possessions. It was a barrage of offense that should feel familiar to anyone who pays attention to the Big 12.
"Gundy has been doing it a long time," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said afterward. "He's got what he wants there."
Boy, does he. He has a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback from SEC country, he has a first-round-caliber receiver who no one paid attention to playing 1A high school football in a tiny Texas town, and he even lucked into a four-year starting center who simply wouldn't take no for an answer. Gundy threw them all in a pot, let them stew for a few years and got this: an offense with the experience and firepower capable of setting records and crashing the College Football Playoff.
It's a no-huddle that also shifts gears.
It's a spread that also goes vertical.
It's a quarterback who executes run-pass options by reading the front seven and the secondary.
It's the convergence of speed and efficiency, strength and elegance. Every piece fits just so, as if tied together by a string, working in concert to average 35.7 points and 430.3 yards per game -- in the first half.
"You're not going to stop them completely," South Alabama coach Joey Jones said. "You're just not."
"You're searching for answers," Pitt safety Dennis Briggs said. "You really can't figure it out."
Maybe slowing them down isn't possible. But maybe we can better understand how and why the Cowboys' offense came to be so devastatingly good.
It started, of all places, at the end of a five-game losing streak in November of the 2014 season. The location was Waco, Texas, and the final score was a doozy: Baylor 49, Oklahoma State 28.
It was just one week after the lowest point of the season, according to Gundy, when unranked Texas came into Stillwater and beat up on the Cowboys, 28-7. Losing by three touchdowns was tough enough, but it was the offense's ineptitude that hurt most.
"There was nothing we could do," Gundy said. "It's like being 200 [yards] out from the green, you got to hit it up on the green to putt to tie it, and all you have in your bag is a 7-iron. It's going to be hard."
So before facing the seventh-ranked Bears on the road, Gundy emptied his bag. He looked around his locker room and decided to make some changes. It was time to go all-in on the future.
That included freshman walk-on offensive lineman Brad Lundblade. Eight months earlier, Gundy and his staff had made the difficult decision to not offer Lundblade a scholarship. He was a smart kid who loved Oklahoma State, visited campus often and got along well with everyone. But at around 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, he was a tad undersized to play offensive line in the Big 12.
Thankfully for Gundy, Lundblade's father had a heart-to-heart with his son. "Don't worry about the money," he told him. "Go follow your dream." Lundblade said thanks but no thanks to some lower-tier FBS offers, walked on at Oklahoma State and made the team out of camp. Then injuries hit and a few offensive linemen underperformed. Lundblade, who was on the scout team, was surprised when coaches told him he'd start traveling with the team.
Then the implosion against Texas happened.
"It was a tough year for us," Lundblade said. "They were looking to make a couple changes, so they gave me a shot."
The other change was at quarterback.
Gundy was planning to redshirt true freshman Mason Rudolph, a four-star prospect from Rock Hill, South Carolina, but after talking it over, the staff decided to give him a shot. At that time, Rudolph wasn't quite the Louis Vuitton-backpack-wearing, record-setting quarterback he has become, but he had confidence.
Rudolph and Lundblade both started in that game against Baylor. In the second quarter, trailing by three touchdowns, Rudolph dropped back and found David Glidden for an 8-yard touchdown. It was instant comfort after that. In the fourth quarter, Rudolph really let loose with a 68-yard touchdown pass to fellow true freshman James Washington.
It wasn't a pretty game by any means, but according to Gundy, the Cowboys started looking like an offense again. Looking back, it was the start of something special for Rudolph, Lundblade, Washington and the rest of that freshman class who are seniors today.
"We made our first start together, and we've been together ever since," Lundblade said. "We knew that we were young. We knew that any time you play that many young players, there's going to be a learning curve. So obviously, it was frustrating, but we weren't too worried about it. We knew it was going to pay off eventually. It was just a matter of time."
The next week against archrival Oklahoma, Rudolph threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-35 win in overtime.
That offseason, Washington remembers waking up at 6 a.m. on Friday mornings to meet at Boone Pickens Stadium to run up and down the bleachers.
"Coming off of that year, we decided that we needed to actually work," he said. "We worked hard every single day, and that's really what set us up for these past few years. I feel like that gave us that drive."
For Washington, who grew up in Stamford, Texas, with a population of fewer than 4,000 people, working hard and running stadiums were nothing. If it weren't for football, he said he would be running a ranch putting in grueling dawn-to-dusk hours.
In fact, he chose Oklahoma State because it had a top agricultural program.
But if all goes according to plan, he won't have to plant seed or herd cattle for money anytime soon. The 6-foot wideout has NFL written all over him, with one coach calling him a potential top-10 pick.
Lundblade said he has never seen anyone run as fast as Washington. Through three games, Washington has three touchdowns, and all of them have been for 40 yards or more. He currently ranks 12th nationally in receiving yards (367), despite catching just 13 passes.
It doesn't matter that he isn't that tall, according to his quarterback.
"That's what you're seeing today isn't your Terrell Owens- and Randy Moss-type height," Rudolph said. "You're seeing the Odell Beckhams, the Antonio Browns and the [Julian] Edelmans of the year that are smaller and change direction really well and are extremely fast. I don't think it's a problem. It's who he is and what he does."
But what's truly scary for opposing defenses is that Washington doesn't have to do it alone. Ask around, and you might hear that Washington isn't even the most explosive receiver on the roster. That honor could belong to former LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, whom Washington called a shifty, "make-you-miss" player.
In a bit of premonition, Narduzzi was asked before the game how he felt about his defense's ability to give up big plays.
"I don't feel good when I look at James Washington out there and Mason Rudolph," he said. "Just go put on Oklahoma State [film]: big, explosive passes and runs. ... As soon as you start playing Cover 2 and trying to put two over that guy, it's out the gate going 98, and that's not good, either. So it's pick your poison."
Washington scared him, Narduzzi said, "but I'm scared of them all."
That is music to Rudolph's ears. What might be seen as a problem to some -- too many receivers, not enough passes to go around -- is a solution to the senior quarterback, who said he prefers that his receivers be a little angry at one another.
"That's healthy," he said. "Not necessarily angry, but competitive angry. That just makes them run their routes harder and 100 percent effort every snap."
Said Washington: "When it's your turn to get the ball, make it happen. Because you don't know how many you're going to get."
It's the combination of talent and experience that makes Oklahoma State's offense special.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is a taskmaster, according to Gundy, and Rudolph is a "workaholic." He compared Rudolph's work ethic to that of Peyton Manning and freely admits that he won't be able to hide the brilliant mind of Yurcich on his staff much longer.
That is probably true, considering his offense is second in points scored, third in total yards and fifth in third-down conversion percentage among FBS teams. Oklahoma State is first in expected points added on offense, which factors in things such as down and distance, field position, home-field advantage and time remaining. The Cowboys are doing this with incredible balance (104 passes to 109 rushes) and speed (29th in time of possession per play).
"I'll be honest, and I mean this as humble as possible," Gundy said. "I have no clue what people are going to do."
South Alabama went with a Bear front to try to stop the run, only to lose 44-7 as Rudolph completed 25 of 38 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns.
"We felt like we always want to stop the run," Jones said. "But that guy, the quarterback, obviously had a great game.
"It's kind of like damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery said he thought his defense could get pressure on Rudolph and create turnovers. On one play, he had two defenders get to Rudolph.
"And he still dropped a dime and threw a touchdown for about 50 yards," Montgomery said.
The spread, RPO concepts Oklahoma State is able to use are more advanced than most, Montgomery said, and it's a direct testament to how experienced and well-versed Rudolph is in the offense. When he gets to the line of scrimmage, he has three different checks he can make within a single formation.
The best you can do, Montgomery said, is make a stop on first down and hope for the best.
"If you want an opportunity to get after Oklahoma State, you have to play really good defense on first down, get them behind the sticks, and you have to do that continually throughout the game," he said. "They're going to get their chunks of yardage, they're going to make some plays, but if you can get them in a situation where they're struggling on first down and having to really make yards on second down, to me that's where you put pressure on them. If you can't do that, if they can do whatever they want on first down, they're going to eat you up."
It sounds painful, if not outright unfair, from the other side of the field.
But ask the Cowboys, and it's a blast.
"It's crazy," Hill said. "It's really fun. Just being out there with your teammates, you don't have to do much besides your job. And then you look up, and you see James and Marcell and somebody else are out there running for a touchdown."
Hill makes it sound easy, marching up and down the field at will, but it didn't start out that way. You'll have to forgive him because the sophomore is something of a newcomer to the party.
In fact, this offense was years in the making.
But now that it's all pieced together, it really is something to behold.