FRISCO, Texas — If you turned back the clocks to the week of September 23, 2017, very few people would tell you they had their money on TCU over Oklahoma State.
Not when the Cowboys were ranked No. 6 in the country with Heisman-hopeful Mason Rudolph under center. Not when the Horned Frogs began the season unranked and were still searching for their first win in Stillwater, Okla since 1991. Not when the 2015 TCU team, led by an offense that included Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson, couldn’t get past the Pokes at Boone Pickens Stadium.
But Gary Patterson isn’t a man who exactly embraces high expectations in the preseason. As the 18-year veteran TCU coach often says, “kids handle failure better than success.” Point proven, as the underdog Horned Frogs went in and upended the No. 6 Cowboys for their road win at Oklahoma State in more than a quarter-century.
Perhaps the 44-31 win shouldn’t have come as so much of a surprise. Just six years into being a member of the conference, TCU has established itself as the Big 12 team that nobody can afford to sleep on — even when the preseason polls aren’t very friendly to Patterson & Co. With both their non-winning seasons as a Big 12 school (2013 and 2016) followed up by at least 11 wins the next year, the Horned Frogs thrive when under the radar — propelled by the mantra “next man up.”
Now, it might just be the turn for another Big 12 foe to live and and die by that phrase — and possibly ride it to success that very few see coming during the 2018 campaign.
A near 4-hour drive north of Fort Worth, Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy has a tall task in front of him as he looks to record a 4th straight 10-win season in Stillwater. Gone are three of the biggest playmakers from the 2017 team, namely the coveted quarterback-receiver connection of Mason Rudolph and James Washington that torched secondaries across college football over the last three years. The reining Johnny Unitas and Fred Biletnikoff Award winners aren’t the only departures, as wide receiver Marcell Ateman also graduated.
As the script flips to this fall, the Cowboys’ offense can rely on the experience of playmakers including running back Justice Hill and wide receiver Jalen McCleskey, but McCleskey alone can’t make up for the depth lost at his position. Replacing Rudolph won’t be an overnight task either — one which could very well fall on the shoulders of Taylor Cornelius, as Gundy indicated during his press conference on Tuesday. All things said, plenty of adversity faces Oklahoma State as they enter the 2018 season picked No. 5 in the preseason Big 12 football poll.
And judging by the reactions at the Star in Frisco, the Pokes’ remaining playmakers don’t seem at all fazed by that reality. Rather, they embrace it.
“Coach Gundy says it’s the best place to be,” McCleskey said. “We’re usually not talked that much about much in the offseason, but we just try not to worry about it. We just grind in offseason, watch film, and once the season comes along, we show everyone what we have to offer.”
While true that the team hasn’t surprised folks out of nowhere in the past, it was an entirely different story 12 months ago. Oklahoma State’s offense was poised to be one of the most prolific units in the nation — one easily capable of winning the Big 12 Championship and perhaps even the national title. The Cowboys surged out of the gate during non-conference play, including a 59-21 onslaught against Pittsburgh in Week 3, but that momentum came crashing down with the loss to TCU a week later. Oklahoma State went on to finish 3rd in the Big 12 after two more home losses to Oklahoma and Kansas State.
“We knew we were good and we knew what we were capable of,” Hill said. “Some of the games just didn’t turn our way.”
But that’s now in the past. Like McCleskey, Hill welcomes the change from top-dogs back to underdogs ahead of this season
“I like it way better,” Hill said. “When you’re at the top you can get a sense of complacency sometimes. When you’re at the bottom, you’ve always got that underdog mentality — you’re hungry to go prove everybody wrong.”
Granted, the group has bigger priorities than worrying about what the experts and critics have to say in the offseason. But at the times when the players do get a glimpse of what the world is or isn’t saying, it only fuels their fire.
“I love it,” defensive tackle Darrion Daniels said. “Whenever I am scrolling through Twitter, Google or Yahoo, I don’t see our name. I like it like that. When you see somebody’s name a lot, you tend to develop somewhat of a hatred for them, but nobody knows about us, so they won’t know about us until it’s too late and the clock is ticking down to zero with us up 35 points.”
Lead by example
If 35-point victories are to become a reality, it will be a team effort. The upper classmen recognize the responsibility they own as role models for the younger players.
“It’s up to me to lead by example — to be more vocal and help [the younger players] out,” McCleskey said. “It’s knowing that if they have any questions, they’re going to come to me since I’m the older guy and I’ve been here the longest.”
And there’s plenty of potential to be had among the younger players which McCleskey intends to lead. Of the newcomers, none may stand out more than dual-threat quarterback Spencer Sanders, who was named the Gatorade Texas High School Player of the year for his endeavors at Ryan High School in Denton, Texas.
“He’s going to doing really good this summer,” McCleskey said. “We’ve been throwing with him and the rest of the group a lot. I feel like he’s going to be a really good quarterback here.”
When it comes to Hill, the task of pouring into those with less experience only adds to his existing motivation on the football field.
“They see you working well. If you’re not working, they’re not going to work either,” Hill said. “The biggest thing is to lead by example.”
Hill did just that as only a sophomore in 2017, as he led the Big 12 with 1,467 rushing yards on the season. It was the third highest total for a sophomore in Oklahoma State history, and that performance has prompted some to to tab Hill as a dark-horse Heisman contender for 2018. All of that has Gundy excited to see what his star running back and others can accomplish.
“We’ve been very lucky at Oklahoma State that we have had really, really good players who are great people,” Gundy said. “They are humble and they take care of their business every day and Justice certainly falls into that category.”
A culture for success
As Gundy remarked, the personalities that Hill and his teammates demonstrate aren’t an exception. Rather, it’s the culture the 50-year-old has created during his tenure.
“We want to win a lot of football games,” Gundy said. “We want to be competitive. We want to win a Big 12 Championship, but we also want to be able to put a young man in a position that when he finishes in four years that he can go out there in the real world and get a job, take care of himself and take care of his family and take care of his kids. That’s really the culture we have created. I’m most proud of that.”
And having the opportunity to be a part of the culture Gundy has established is something that players relish.
“He’s set the standard,” Daniels said. “He’s set the bar high. That’s all we know how to do now — once you set a standard, it’s really hard to drop under that.”
Indeed, the bar may be set. But that’s not keeping players from envisioning even bigger and better things to come as Gundy embarks on his 14th season as Oklahoma State’s head coach. No player is perhaps more passionate about that than Hill.
“As soon as he got here, he turned the whole program around,” Hill said. “But we want to up those 10 win seasons now that they’re kind of expected. We want to go to 11, to 12, to 13, to 14.”
No secret, the will to win is present among the leaders on the gridiron at Oklahoma State. Combine it with some extra dedication over the remaining 6 weeks of the offseason, and the Cowboys could be making some unexpected noise in the Big 12 standings this fall.
“I just want to win,” Hill said. “I want to win the Big 12 Championship and the national championship. However that turns out, as long as we are getting wins, it’ll be fun.”