Oklahoma State rising, but recent home losses show room to improve

STILLWATER, Okla. — After watching his team get chased out of Boone Pickens Stadium for the first time in seemingly forever, Mike Gundy found the appropriate words to describe what happened in Bedlam.

“We just kind of ran out of gas,” Gundy said.

After jumping to a 10-0 record, Oklahoma State had a golden opportunity to clinch a Big 12 title and punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff in the confines of its own stadium. Instead, the cardiac Cowboys indeed had little left in the tank for back-to-back showdowns against Baylor and Oklahoma, which both left Stillwater with double-digit victories.

“It’s a disappointment that we didn’t give a better showing.” Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said.

The fact a 10-win season felt disappointing for a squad still relatively young on both sides of the ball underscored just how far Oklahoma State has come in a decade under Gundy, who has coached the Cowboys to three of the program’s six double-digit winning seasons.

But Baylor, and to a greater extent Bedlam, also revealed how far the Cowboys still have to go before capturing that elusive second Big 12 title.

And the warning signs were there along the way — even during the winning streak.

Oklahoma State somehow won 10 games despite fielding the worst rushing offense in the Big 12 (after winless Kansas) by every statistical measure. The Cowboys ranked 111th nationally with an average of only 3.69 yards per carry and just 132 rushing yards per game.

That finally caught up to Oklahoma State down the stretch.

Gundy and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich did everything they could to mask such a glaring deficiency by incorporating dual-threat quarterback J.W. Walsh into the offense. Walsh provided Oklahoma State with some semblance of a running game when he replaced starting quarterback Mason Rudolph.

But that was merely a Band-Aid.

The lack of a running threat to complement Rudolph and the base offense handcuffed the Pokes all year. With big-play wideouts James Washington and Marcell Ateman to go with Rudolph’s accurate downfield arm, the Cowboys could’ve showcased one ferocious play-action attack this season. Instead, unafraid of Oklahoma State’s running game whenever Walsh was on the sidelines, opposing defenses were able to walk their safeties back. And though the Cowboys led the Big 12 in completions of 20 yards or more, the offense often went through bouts of inconsistency as a result.

Through the first 10 games, Oklahoma State overcame this with a series of late-game heroics. But the Cowboys were playing with fire. And Baylor and Oklahoma finally burned them, collectively outrushing the Pokes 648-140.

Which brings us to the other side of the ball.

On paper, Oklahoma State had a chance to boast the best defense in the Big 12. Going into the season, the Cowboys seemed to have the deepest secondary in the league with four experienced cornerbacks. And they possessed an elite pass rusher in Emmanuel Ogbah.

But the defense, while stout in key moments, never became a dominant unit.

And in November, it collapsed.

Even facing a third-string quarterback, the Cowboys couldn’t slow Baylor’s rushing attack or keep the Bears’ receivers from beating them deep play after play. Against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State bounced off Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine too many times to keep the game competitive.

“They broke tackles, they were able to rush the football and we weren't,” Gundy said. “I had concerns about that going in, and unfortunately it held to be true.”

With 18 returning starters, the Cowboys have the pieces to be a contender again in 2016.

Perhaps a better contender, too.

Rudolph should only continue to improve, and with Washington and Ateman both back, Oklahoma State should be lethal through the air. Defensively, Ogbah is likely to enter the NFL draft, but the bulk of the unit returns intact.

Yet the Cowboys must unearth a bell-cow running back, whether he’s currently on campus or not. They must shore up the interior blocking, which was dreadful this season. And they have to get over the hump defensively.

Sure, the Sooners won the Big 12 and will make the playoff in large part because of quarterback Baker Mayfield. But Oklahoma also features the best running back duo in the country, its offensive line has improved dramatically throughout the season, and its defense has emerged as one of the best in the country.

Oklahoma State has reached a new level as a program. Ten wins is no longer so satisfying.

But to get to a championship level, as the final two games showed, the Cowboys have work ahead.