Ogbah, OK State riding wave of emotions toward possible playoff spot
There is this mixture of emotion and expectation, of unprecedented potential triumph and ultimate heartbreak permeating Oklahoma State these days. It’s a wonder anybody wearing a black-and-orange football uniform can even absorb it all.
The homecoming horror of less than three weeks ago is forever burned into everybody’s minds. The Cowboys (9-0, 6-0 Big 12) have won all three of their games since that terrible day, including beating Kansas just hours after learning that four people had died. They rebounded from a double-digit deficit at Texas Tech, and then came last week’s emotional return home and a dominant performance to deflate TCU.
Now No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Oklahoma State and No. 6 Baylor are the Big 12’s only undefeated teams and the conference’s front-runners to make the playoff. The college football hype machine has already advanced to Stillwater for the Nov. 21 game pitting the Bears vs. the Cowboys.
"I mean, it’s not hard," Oklahoma State star defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah said before offering a slight chuckle when asked whether it’s difficult not to overlook the team’s first matter of business, winning Saturday at Iowa State. "I just take the game as it goes. Right now we have a huge task at hand playing Iowa State. That’s where all of my focus is going on right now."
Yes, the Cowboys, believe it or not, are headed to Ames, Iowa, a scheduling quirk that surely has those at Oklahoma State shaking their heads. Iowa State is where Oklahoma State’s last dash for national glory ended so unceremoniously in mid-November 2011.
That game was played the night after Oklahoma State women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna were killed in a plane crash while on a recruiting trip. The tragedy instantly flooded everybody’s memory with the plane crash 10 years earlier that killed eight people associated with the Oklahoma State men’s basketball team, including two players.
And here were the Cowboys, 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation, having just stepped off a team charter themselves, fighting through heavy emotions and playing in a strange Friday night setting at rowdy Jack Trice Stadium. The Cowboys lost in overtime, 37-31.
"Guys like Jimmy Bean, Ryan Simmons, David Glidden and J.W. Walsh were all here," said Ogbah, rattling off a few of the team’s seniors. "It’s come up and we’ve talked about it among us."
The intensity of it all is impossible to escape for this team that is dealing with so much grief around it while simultaneously crafting a season for the ages that would resonate far beyond the closely bonded Stillwater community.
"Things have changed in that it’s like anything can happen at any time, you never know what can happen. You never know what day could be your last," said Ogbah, the Big 12’s sack leader. "Some guys use that as a mindset to play for the victims. Play for them, that’s what I tell some of the guys."
In 2011, Ogbah was a senior at Houston George Bush High School, the school that produced former Oklahoma State All-American and Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Russell Okung. Okung, born in Texas but of Nigerian descent, is the reason Ogbah — a native of Lagos, Nigeria, who moved to Houston with his family at age 9 — became interested in Oklahoma State after his favored school, Texas, didn’t offer him a scholarship.
The bespectacled Ogbah, 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, is known as Clark Kent off the field and Superman on it. He has blossomed into one of the best pass rushers in the game, leading the Big 12 and ranking No. 5 in the nation with 9.5 sacks, while also ranking high up the charts for tackles for loss. He was named National Defensive Player of the Week after he scored a defensive touchdown, forced two fumbles, got a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry in the Cowboys’ overtime win against West Virginia.
In a Big 12 known for its explosive offenses and video-game scoring, the Cowboys are quietly putting together one of the most well-rounded teams in the conference.
Of course, tremendous challenges await with high-scoring Baylor and then Bedlam rival Oklahoma, now boasting its own Air Raid offense again, on the schedule after Iowa State.
Ogbah, a junior, leads a defensive unit that ranks No. 2 in scoring defense in the Big 12, allowing 23.8 points a game. Last week was its coming-out party in the 49-29 win against TCU, a team that hadn’t scored fewer than 40 points since the season opener.
The Horned Frogs still racked up more than 600 total yards, but the Cowboys’ defense didn’t allow yards gained on 110 TCU snaps — a record for snaps defended by an Oklahoma State defense — to translate into big points.
"The whole talk was, ‘Steal possessions, any way we can,’ " Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. "Let it be by a three-and-out, we had a couple of those; make them punt, a few of those; turnovers, a few of those."
More like a lot of those — four interceptions of Heisman candidate quarterback Trevone Boykin. He threw five interceptions through the first eight games. The Cowboys’ elite pass rush kept the pressure on, forcing Boykin into 35 of 57 passing.
Combined with an offense that has averaged 59 points in the past three games coinciding with the big-play emergence of sophomore receiver James Washington, Oklahoma State has emerged from its lowered profile through three early down-to-the-wire conference wins to become a full-blown national playoff contender. Last week’s win against the Horned Frogs served as a national wake-up call.
"I feel the TCU game was kind of like a statement game," Ogbah said. "People shouldn’t be sleeping on us."