No. 14 Oklahoma State braces for improving Baylor

STILLWATER, Okla. — Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy isn’t exactly sure what to make of Baylor as the Bears prepare to visit Saturday.

Yet Gundy does know there’s no sense making anything of Baylor’s first three games, a disastrous run that included losses to Liberty, UTSA and Duke. The Bears have become healthier, better and more dangerous since.

They’re still winless (0-5, 0-2 Big 12), but two conference games have seen them push Oklahoma and Kansas State deep in the fourth quarter of those setbacks, scoring a combined 61 points in the games.

“We haven’t looked at their first three games since they changed quarterbacks,” Gundy said. “I’m fairly certain that this is who they’re going to be offensively. You can pretty much throw the first three games away.”

The No. 14 Cowboys (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) will keep their first three results — all blowout wins. Their fourth game, a 44-31 loss to No. 6 TCU, is the game they regret for now, forcing a major rally for any hopes of a College Football Playoff berth.

Oklahoma State took the first step with a 41-34 victory at Texas Tech. And before the Cowboys hit a critical stretch of games against Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma, there’s this tricky potential trap game against Baylor.

For senior quarterback Mason Rudolph and other Cowboys, there’s plenty of motivation.

“I think obviously what sticks out most to me is I haven’t beaten those guys, and I want to beat them,” said Rudolph, who is 26-7 in his career at Oklahoma State, but 0-3 against Baylor. “This is kind of one I’ve had circled on the schedule for a while now. So I’m preparing hard, getting ready to go and lead my team and play my butt off.”

Rudolph is the nation’s second-leading passer at 381.8 yards per game and ranks tied for third nationally with 16 passing touchdowns. He’s the trigger man on an offense that averages 583.4 yards (second) and 46.8 points (tied for second) per game.

“Oklahoma State has great players, a great quarterback and a great offensive scheme,” Bears coach Matt Rhule said. “There is no better deep receiving corps in the country. It definitely won’t be easy, but we’re going to have to find ways to get some pressure on the quarterback and stop the run.”

Quarterback play has spurred Baylor’s improved play, if not wins.

Zach Smith took over as the Bears starter three games ago and has returned an explosive element to the offense. He’s already thrown for 1,033 yards and eight touchdowns.

Smith’s play has freed up receiver Denzel Mims, a big-play wideout who has caught 25 passes for 533 yards and seven touchdowns.

“It looks like, to me at least, they’ve reverted back to the Baylor of old in the past couple of weeks,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said.

The Bears have lagged in the running game, ranking No. 106 in averaging only 118.4 yards per game on the ground. But there’s hope for a boost, with top backs Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty returning to health after missing much of the action so far.

“I’m excited about it,” Rhule said. “The toughest thing will be deciding who will carry the football. We’ll go with the hot hand once we get into the game.”

The series has often featured shootouts, which could put both defenses in the crosshairs, especially now that Baylor has gained traction on offense.

“They are definitely a good team,” said Cowboys running back Justice Hill, who has 516 rushing yards in five games. “They had a lot of guys suspended the first couple of games, but coming back when they played OU they had a good game. Kansas State was a good game. They are a good team.”

Both teams were off last week, meaning they’ve had extra time to rest and be ready for the season’s final seven weeks.

The Cowboys need a run of wins to reposition themselves for a spot in the Big 12 championship. The Bears simply need a win.

“Once we get a win,” Smith said, “all this stuff is going to feel a lot easier … 0-5 is never good, but I think we’re a strong team, we’ve got a strong coach and I think we’re unified. We’ve got our heads on straight, and now we’ve got to go get this first win.”