Ollie Gordon lingered on the Oklahoma State bench after another loss had gone final, but when the Cowboy running back finally got to his feet, he slammed his towel down in frustration.
Cowboys everywhere can relate.
Iowa State 34, OSU 27.
A week after an embarrassing loss to South Alabama, OSU was better Saturday afternoon in Ames. Better stopping the run. Better running the ball. Better getting into the end zone. But against an opponent, the Cowboys had a good opportunity to beat, they weren’t better enough.
“Nobody likes to be 0-2 in two weeks, right?” Cowboy quarterback Alan Bowman said on OSU’s postgame radio show. “I think this team is really good. There’s a lot of talent on this team.
“Only thing we can do is get better at what we can.”
The frustrating thing is that the Cowboys could’ve already been better.
If only Mike Gundy and Co. had named a starting quarterback sooner.
Bowman got the nod this week. Neither he nor Gundy would say exactly when the decision was made. As a result, we don’t know if he got all the first-team reps in practice this week, more of the first-team reps or continued splitting them equally with Garret Rangel and Gunnar Gundy as he had throughout fall camp and the first three weeks of the season.
That is a difficult setup for any quarterback, but for Bowman, it had to be particularly difficult because, until Saturday in Ames, he hadn’t played a full game in almost three years. Last he did, we were wearing masks to protect us against COVID and limiting attendance at college football games.
No matter when he played a full game for the Cowboys, he was going to be rusty, and against the Cyclones, he was. He was 23 of 48 for 278 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also had a rushing touchdown.
But that kind of completion percentage isn’t good enough. Under 50% won’t cut it in the Big 12.
He contended things will get better as he and the rest of the offense have more reps together.
“Obviously, those guys haven’t been with me forever, right?” he told reporters after the game, having been made available to reporters for the first time as a Cowboy. “So each game we come into with a new game plan and new system, it’s good for us. It’s going to help us grow.”
But what if these growing pains had come against Central Arkansas or Arizona State? What if Bowman had been named the starter two or three weeks ago and had those full games under his belt, plus all the practices before them?
Imagine where he and the offense might be right now.
Now, some, including Gundy, might contend that if Bowman had just asserted himself as the guy, if he had made it known that he deserved to be the starter, he would’ve gotten the job earlier, and the three-quarterback rotation might’ve been avoided altogether.
I suppose that’s true.
But here’s why the coaches, starting with Gundy, needed to name a starter sooner: they had to know the Cowboy defense was going to need all the help it could get. It’s a bunch that lost a ton of talent to the transfer portal, then got a new defensive scheme from a new defensive coordinator who had never been an assistant, much less a coordinator at the FBS level.
If it took defensive guru Jim Knowles a couple of years to get the defense rolling, surely Gundy had to know it would take Bryan Nardo some time.
The offense needed to carry the freight.
Instead, the Cowboys averaged just more than 20 points a game in non-conference play against a nondescript slate of opponents. They sputtered their way into Big 12 play. They had little rhythm and likely less confidence.
Then, on Saturday, when the defense faced a conference foe and was exposed — Iowa State managed only seven points a week ago against Ohio — the offense wasn’t able to keep pace. Oh, the Cowboys almost matched the Cyclones in total yards, 422 to 409. Ditto for first downs, 20 to 18, and yards per play, 5.9 to 5.7.
But the Cowboys weren’t quite as refined as the Cyclones.
When OSU had a chance to answer early in the fourth quarter after Iowa State had taken a 34-20 lead, the Cowboys quickly moved into Cyclone territory. But then, OSU went incompletion, a terrible sack that was a 17-yard loss and finally, another incompletion.
The Cowboys had to punt.
Honestly, after that point, the OSU defense played quite well. Iowa State had three possessions when the outcome was still in question in the fourth quarter, and the Cyclones went punt, punt, punt. They managed only 41 yards on those possessions.
But the OSU offense failed to pay off what the defense did. It had the ball four times in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys went punt, punt, touchdown, turnover on downs.
That’s not good enough.
Now, after what the Cowboys did in non-conference play, you might say that’s to be expected. That’s on par with what has happened the first three weeks of the season. But here’s the frustrating thing: what if Gundy had picked a quarterback three weeks ago? What if he’d made a tough decision, told the other guys that they’d played well in fall camp but that naming a starter was the best thing for the team? What if he’d given Bowman or Rangel or Gunnar or whomever this past month to marinate in the system? What if Gundy had given the line and the backs and the receivers a chance to get comfortable with their quarterback?
“We made some improvements,” Gundy said. “Came up short. We don’t like that. But we did make some improvements.”
That’s cold comfort for a team that finds itself heading into a much more difficult stretch in October. After an off week, there’ll be games against Kansas State and Kansas, then a road game at West Virginia, then another home game against Cincinnati.
Winning even half of those games might be a tall order.
“We have the talent. We have the ability,” Bowman said. “I think the offense can be electric and will be electric. It hasn’t clicked just yet.
“But it’s close.”
It could’ve been even closer. It could’ve even been there by now. Instead, the OSU offense leaves Cowboys everywhere wondering if it will ever get there or if these Cowboys will forever be a frustrating step behind.