Oklahoma State back in control of Big 12 race after erasing early hiccup

Win or lose, Mike Gundy can’t watch game film when he’s flying back to Stillwater after games. It’s a decision based in practicality, not emotion.

He gets airsick.

He didn’t need to make it worse by digging into video of a 30-21 loss to West Virginia. Oklahoma State’s Big 12 opener against the Mountaineers already had his stomach churning.

“The West Virginia game is kind of a coach’s nightmare, because we know there’s always a capability of that happening,” Gundy told Fox Sports Southwest this week.

“For whatever reason, your game plan is average and your team doesn’t play well and you turn the ball over. Unless you’re considerably better than the other team, when that happens, you lose.”

Oklahoma State had been picked to win the Big 12 for the first time ever.  The first game chasing that title left more than a few folks in Stillwater with visions of an 8-4 season dancing in their heads.

“Those are the things that as a coach, we always fear. I don’t fear losing,” Gundy said. “I tell the team this: If we prepare and you guys stay focused during the week, and you put time and effort in and play hard, but the other team plays better and just beats you, they win. That’s life. That’s the way it is. But if you just give one to them, those are the things coaches fear. That’s the only thing I fear.”

Gundy’s fear came to life in Morgantown back on Sept. 28.

Seven games later, Oklahoma State is the nation’s No. 6 team and hosts rival Oklahoma on Saturday. A win means a Big 12 title and a BCS berth for the second time in three years.

Gundy often tells his players how proud he is of them, but he rarely offers much fawning praise in hopes of keeping the team grounded. He had to deviate from that script this week.

“The accomplishment that you guys have made the last eight weeks is pretty amazing,” he told them.

How OSU went from losing to a 4-8 team to beating the nation’s No. 3 team by 32 points doesn’t have a simple answer, but it does go back to that flight home. The coaches who aren’t subject to airsickness will watch film on the plane. Gundy whipped out a notebook and began logging what had to change to redirect the season toward what he and his team had hoped.  

He started with the offensive line.

“We had played musical chairs on the offensive line because of our injuries in preseason camp and in the first week. We needed to solidify who were going to be our five offensive linemen and what position they needed to play,” Gundy said. “That was the start.”

He knew he needed more from his quarterback and needed to start winning the turnover battle. OSU turned the ball over three times against West Virginia and had just two takeaways. From Gundy’s estimation, many of those problems would be solved by consistency along the offensive line.

“It’s not like you can correct all your mistakes in one week,” Gundy said. “You only get two practices. You try to get a short amount accomplished that week and a little more the next week and then hopefully a month later, you’re a better offense.”

It happened for Oklahoma State, who went with Daniel Koenig (LT), Brandon Webb (LG), Jake Jenkins (C), Parker Graham (RG) and Chris Grisbhy (RT) the following week against Kansas State and stuck with it. Briefly sliding Brandon Garrett up to starting tackle over Grisbhy has been the only tweak over the past seven games, and Graham has emerged as one of the Big 12’s best offensive linemen.

Graham saw a team that was upset after a loss, but used a roster with 28 seniors to steady the season.

“It’s a testament to success, realizing that this wasn’t a killer for us,” Graham said. “Also, our seniors not showing any detrimental things and our players responded.”

Oklahoma State averaged just 28 points in the next two games, wins over Kansas State and TCU. Gundy benched quarterback J.W. Walsh for Clint Chelf after Walsh threw a pair of interceptions against TCU. After the TCU win, he handed over featured running back duties to Desmond Roland.

“Our defense and our kicking game carried us,” Gundy said of the pair of home wins. “We were still not very good on offense, but our defense played good and our kicking game was good.”

The next week against Iowa State, Oklahoma State finally looked like the kind of team that most saw in the preseason: A Big 12 title contender.

The Cowboys ran for 342 yards and five touchdowns and scored 58 points despite throwing for just 78 yards.

“It started to turn there. I saw them say offensively say, ‘This could work,'”Gundy said. “That’s when it really started to change as a team.”

Chelf threw for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns the next week in a 52-34 win over Texas Tech. The Cowboys ran for 281 yards and had three rushers with at least 70 yards.

Oklahoma State has averaged 47.8 points in the last five games.

The loss to West Virginia remains the only time OSU has lost the turnover battle this season. At +16, the Cowboys are tied for third nationally in turnover margin.

“As a defense, those guys have been consistent for 11 games. Our kicking game was good in the middle of the season, so we kind of just limped our way through 4-5 games to where we could get a little bit better on offense,” Gundy said. “We’re not great on offense right now. We’re just good. That’s it.”

OSU eliminated any questions about how far it had come since the early season stumble by derailing Baylor’s road to the national title in emphatic fashion. Chelf turned in the best game of his career, throwing for 370 yards and three touchdowns in the 49-17 win. He also caught a 48-yard pass on a trick play.

The win put Oklahoma State in position to capture another Big 12 title this season and validate a claim as a new Big 12 power.

“We don’t really have necessarily those big first-round pick names,” Graham said. “It’s a team. It’s not individuals.”

After a slow start, cornerback Justin Gilbert’s played his way back into a likely NFL draft selection, but there aren’t any Brandon Weeden’s or Justin Blackmon on this roster.

“We don’t really have a star on this team,” Gundy said. “After the West Virginia game, we didn’t have anybody that people said, ‘Hey, I can’t wait to draft those guys.'”

It’s unlikely a Cowboy other than Gilbert will hear his name called on the first (or perhaps the second) day of the draft. Despite that, OSU has spent the last two months building toward regaining its status as the Big 12’s best team.

“My message never changes. You can never keep them too high and can’t have them too low. You have to be consistent with them,” Gundy said.

Telling his players to believe and buy in is one thing. Getting them to believe it is another. Having an experienced team wearing Big 12 title rings helps make it a whole lot easier to take Gundy at his word when he says a loss doesn’t put goals out of reach and continued work will pay off. Seniors and experienced players reinforce the message in the locker room: Apply what his staff demands, and good things will happen.

“I’ve been here 10 years. The kids believe in it and buy into it and they can pull you along in a tough time,” Gundy said. “You have a 130 people on your team. Trying to get 130 people to believe one thing is not easy.”

That mission’s been accomplished. A bigger goal will be in Gundy’s bag, too if his team can beat Oklahoma on Saturday.