STILLWATER — The Oklahoma State football program aspires to be nationally significant every season, to achieve a much better success rate in the Bedlam series and to loosen the OU stranglehold on Big 12 titles.
Before Mike Gundy’s program can get a grip on those goals, however, there’s got to be more consistency with one of the basics for any program — winning home games.
The 2011 Cowboys had six home dates and won in them all. Average margin: 28 points. That’s the gold standard.
Before Saturday’s arrival of Brock Purdy and the 17th-ranked Iowa State Cyclones, Oklahoma State more recently had developed a penchant for stumbling in exactly this type of contest. It happened in 2017 against TCU and Kansas State, in 2018 against Texas Tech and Iowa State, and in 2019 when Baylor ruined the homecoming weekend in Stillwater.
The Gundy era is defined mostly by winning, but there had been too many recent examples of faltering at home.
In OSU’s previous 15 conference games at Boone Pickens Stadium, there had been seven losses.
In advance of Iowa State-OSU, I didn’t dwell on the minutiae of the matchup. I focused instead on the big-picture storyline — whether Spencer Sanders and these No. 6-ranked Cowboys were really ready to record an important victory over a comparably talented opponent.
This would be Sanders’ first action since he sustained a Sept. 19 ankle injury against Tulsa. Also, if he finished what he started, this would be Sanders’ first complete-game performance in 51 weeks. Because of a thumb injury, he was sidelined for most of the final three games last season.
Even if he’s been on the practice field a million times, there had to be rust when Sanders competed against the Cyclones. He wasn’t perfect. OSU’s third-year sophomore quarterback was intercepted twice, and on each occasion Iowa State capitalized with a touchdown.
Sanders was super resilient, however. After each turnover, he responded with playmaking. He finished 20-of-29 passing for 235 yards while rushing for 71 yards.
Shane Illingworth, the freshman who quarterbacked OSU in the West Virginia and Kansas games, was ready if needed. His time will come, but Saturday wasn’t his time. Sanders took the first snap and the final snap.
Both for Sanders and his defensive teammates, Saturday’s game was an exercise in making mistakes and recovering from those mistakes, and in the end there was a 24-21 victory for the Cowboys.
When time expired, OSU was 4-0 overall and 3-0 in Big 12 play for the first time since 2015. Freshman receiver Brennan Presley executed a celebration backflip. It might have been the first Oklahoma State victory backflip since Marcus Smart did one at the end of a 2013 Cowboy basketball triumph at Kansas.
There were a few breakdowns — like allowing Iowa State’s Breece Hall to get loose for a 66-yard touchdown sprint — but on the whole OSU’s defense solidified its reputation as perhaps the Big 12’s best.
In 12 of his games before Saturday, Purdy had completed at least 70% of his passes. Against OSU here two years ago, he was 18-of-23 passing (78%) for 318 yards and four scores.
On Saturday, Purdy was 19-of-34 (56%) and for only 162 yards. During the second half, there were incompletions on eight consecutive Purdy passes.
There were sacks by OSU’s Trace Ford, Malcolm Rodriguez and Tyler Lacy, and there were tremendously impressive deep-ball plays by Cowboy safeties Tre Sterling (who broke up a pass) and Kolby Harvell-Peel (who had a dazzling interception).
Purdy’s only touchdown pass was converted with 49 seconds left to play. It resulted in anxiety for the crowd of 14,672, but OSU recovered an onside kick and secured for Gundy his 10th win in 13 meetings with Iowa State.
What a series this has been. For the fifth time in the past six Iowa State-OSU meetings, the outcome was decided by no more than six points.
I always wonder why OSU’s giant tight end Jelani Woods isn’t more frequently targeted. After a 16-yard run by Chuba Hubbard and a 19-yard catch by Tylan Wallace, first-year Cowboy play-caller Kasey Dunn dialed Woods’ number.
As Cyclone defenders were focused on Cowboy wide receivers, Woods was alone in the middle of the field. He collected Sanders’ pass for a 34-yard TD.
No doubt about it — OSU got some breaks. Iowa State missed on field goal attempts from 48 and 33 yards. Cyclone tight end Charlie Kolar had a shot at a huge play when a Purdy pass hit him exactly in the hands. The ball fell to the turf.
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell might need headache medicine as he reviews the game video.
On one fourth-quarter play, Sanders took a helmet shot to the head while also getting belted in the groin-midsection region. The groin-midsection region — it never responds well to getting belted. When it happens, it’s uniquely painful and shocking.
On the next play, Sanders kept the football and tried to score a touchdown. His heroism was nullified by a holding call. OSU settled for a field goal and a 10-point lead.
The takeaways from Iowa State-OSU: The Cowboys got a home victory that should keep them at no worse than the top six of the Top 25, and Sanders finished a game for the first time in nearly a year.
Sanders’ toughness and recovery wherewithal will be tested again next week, when Texas visits for a Halloween battle, and at Kansas State on Nov. 7 and in a Bedlam road game on Nov. 21.