A wet, dreary day in Waco, Texas last November brought rays of light that changed the future of the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy had just seen his team lose to Baylor, 49-28, at McLane Stadium with a true freshman quarterback running the offense in his first career game. Yet Gundy didn't sound anything like a coach who had just seen his team suffer a three-touchdown defeat, its fifth straight loss.
"This could've very well been the best game we have played in a month," Gundy said at the time.
Those were odd words on the heels of stripping the redshirt off Mason Rudolph -- which Gundy maintains was not an easy decision -- and throwing the true freshman signal-caller into the Bears' den against Baylor.
"We weren't really sure what was going to happen," receiver David Glidden said. "You never know if a guy is going to go into a game, if he's going to tighten up and be like, 'Holy crap, look at this stage on I'm now.'"
Rudolph responded with a performance that belied his inexperience, even though his final numbers (281 passing yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) left plenty to be desired. It was a loss, but a foundation for the future was built that night, as it was easy to see Rudolph had something special. His teammates responded to him and the overall confidence within the program began to rise as soon as he took over.
"Afterwards, I was so impressed with how he kept himself composed the entire time," Glidden said. "His demeanor never changed when we were down and when he was throwing touchdown passes."
The Cowboys haven't lost a game since.
Oklahoma State's last meeting with Baylor started a avalanche of events that have put the No. 6-ranked Cowboys on the cusp of a College Football Playoff berth if the football landscape falls in their favor.
Oklahoma State is 12-1 with Rudolph as a starter, having won 12 consecutive games since that initial defeat. Rudolph has emerged as one of the nation's most productive passers with 3,161 yards (12th among FBS quarterbacks) and 9.3 yards per pass attempt (ranking No. 4 in the Big 12). The true sophomore has experienced plenty of ups and downs but has consistently grown throughout his first full season as a starter.
Rudolph solidified the starting spot -- helping to completely change the momentum and atmosphere around the program -- after quarterbacking Oklahoma State to a upset win at Oklahoma in Bedlam then a TicketCity Cactus Bowl win over Washington to end 2014.
"That experience, the extra practices, playing in a bowl game I think it all adds up," Glidden said. "It's starting to pay off now. His attitude and demeanor never changed. It was all the exact same thing and to me that shows a lot. He came out and did his job the way he always does."
Rudolph's emergence combined with J.W. Walsh's experience and demeanor to create one of the most unique two-quarterback systems in college football. The Cowboys invented a special role for Walsh, a returning starter who was pushed into a backup role after Rudolph's strong showing in the final three games of 2014. Oklahoma State has dual quarterbacks with dual systems but none of the discord that usually accompanies such a scenario.
"They're good people and they're unselfish," Gundy said of his two quarterbacks. "It's a very delicate situation that is working for us that I'm not sure that would be working any other year. They've learned to work together and have developed a very neat relationship."
At various times this season, Walsh and Rudolph have each been the difference as Oklahoma State found a way to remain unbeaten. It's a relationship and a system that has flourished into a real problem for opponents.
"Yeah, it is. It really is," Baylor coach Art Briles said when asked if preparing for both quarterbacks is a difficult. "J.W. does a great job for them. He comes in, midfield, short-yardage and they'll throw with him. Rudolph's first start was against us last year and he's been the starter ever since. Of course, he does a tremendous job running their offense and J.W. adds that little extra benefit for them that keeps you on your toes defensively, because he can throw. He's not just a running quarterback. He's a fifth-year guy who's played a lot of snaps for them."
The groundwork for the Cowboy's national title run was laid on a rainy night in Waco with the dividends ready to be on display when Baylor visits Oklahoma State on Saturday. A young Cowboys team that was searching for confidence found a quarterback they could believe in. The entire roster has taken the lessons learned a year ago to transform into a title contender one year later.
"We learned a lot," defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah said. "Last season was a disappointing season for us. I think that's our motivation, just go out there and be the best we can be."