STILLWATER — Oklahoma State was a team of extremes this season.
The Cowboys could be great — beating OU and having the nation’s leading rusher, for example — and they could be terrible.
South Alabama game, anyone?
All the big orange-and-black swings make a regular-season-ending best and worst fairly easy to compile. (We’re doing it now, by the way, because with opt outs and transfers, the team that plays later this month in the Texas Bowl may look way different than the one that played during the season.)
The biggest difficulty with picking what was the best and what was the worst might have been that in some instances, there were too many options with these Cowboys.
Best offensive player: This is a no-brainer. Ollie Gordon wasn’t just the Cowboys’ best offensive player. The OSU tailback was the best offensive player in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. He led the nation with 1,614 rushing yards and was second with 20 rushing touchdowns, and if you consider he only had 109 yards in non-conference play (and just 19 carries!), Gordon might’ve pushed 2,000 yards had the Cowboys put the ball in his hands more early. He showed himself to be a complete back in every way. Fast. Patient. Tough. Skilled. Just phenomenal.
Best defensive player: This is a surprise. Nick Martin wasn’t supposed to be a starter, much less a star this season. But when transfer linebacker Justin Wright got hurt, Martin was thrust into duty — and was spectacular. Through the Big 12 Championship Game, he had 133 tackles, which was best in the league by a whopping 31 tackles, and had six games with double-digit tackles. Martin was named first-team all-conference.
Best offensive newcomer: Alan Bowman was solid. Leon Johnson was spectacular, albeit in a limited number of games. But the best newbie was Dalton Cooper, the offensive lineman who transferred from Texas State. He was part of a line that found its footing after non-conference play and helped clear the way for Gordon. Cooper, in specific, had the highest overall grade this season from Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every player every game and says a score of 80 is exceptional. His overall grade was 75.4 while he was over 70 on both pass and run blocking.
Best defensive newcomer: Lots to like about Dylan Smith, the true freshman cornerback who made the game-ending tackle in Bedlam. But Anthony Goodlow was a difference maker all season. The transfer defensive end from Tulsa ranked sixth on the team with 40 tackles, most by a defensive lineman. And Pro Football Focus credited him with 19 quarterback hurries, second only to Collin Oliver.
Best win: Bedlam. The Cowboys beat the only team that beat playoff participant Texas, and OSU did it in dramatic fashion. Final scheduled game of the series. Rivalry bragging rights in overdrive. Plus, OU had a fourth-quarter lead that OSU had to overcome, then hold off a late Sooner charge. The game wasn’t necessarily beautiful. There were turnovers. There were penalties. But in the end, the win not only gave the Cowboys bragging rights but also stood as the tiebreaker that got them to the Big 12 Championship Game.
Worst loss: South Alabama. Ugh. Losing to a lower-level opponent is not necessarily a sin, but OSU got dominated. Physically. Schematically. Mentally. Any way possible, the Cowboys were the inferior team against a squad that went on to lose to the likes of Central Michigan and Louisiana.
Best play: There were lots of great Gordon plays, but the biggest play at the time it was needed most was made by safety Trey Rucker. His stop, strip and fumble recovery all on the same play in the second overtime against BYU was the game-winner. It also secured OSU’s spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Worst play: Just about every play in that South Alabama loss was bad, but let’s go with a bad play from another game. With UCF leading 7-0 but OSU having a second-and-1 at the UCF 43, Gordon was hit and fumbled the ball. Four plays later, the Golden Knights scored and the rout was on. Gordon only fumbled three times all season, only lost two of them, but the timing of that one against UCF was horrible.
Best under-the-radar play: Jaden Nixon’s fourth-quarter, fourth-down catch and run against BYU. OSU was still clawing its way back, so the Cowboys had to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the OSU 42 with 3:17 left in the game. Bowman threw a swing pass to Nixon, who caught the ball 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That meant he had to get 6 yards for first down, and when a Cougar defender made contact with Nixon, he was still a yard short of the first down. He lowered his head and not only got the first down but also 2 extra yards. Not long after, OSU scored a touchdown. Without Nixon’s play, there might not have been an overtime win or a Big 12 title game appearance.
Worst under-the-radar play: It didn’t cost the Cowboys, but the halfback pass by Gordon in Bedlam was near disaster. I generally think it’s a good idea to only let quarterbacks throw the ball, but in this case, a head-scratcher of a call came with the Cowboys trailing but driving into Sooner territory. Gordon put up a duck of a pass that was intercepted, and if not for Bowman (the quarterback!) making a tackle, OU probably would’ve had a pick-six. It was a disaster, but it could’ve easily been a game-changing disaster.
Best stat: Nine wins. Look at just about any overall team stat — total offense, total defense, points for, points against, etc. — and you would think this was a .500 team. But somehow, the Cowboys averaged 29.5 points (eighth best in the Big 12) while allowing 29.0 (10th best) and managed to win nine games and play for a Big 12 title. It’s a testament to their belief and tenacity.
Worst stat: The Cowboys’ four losses were by an average of 25.8 points. Three-plus touchdowns! When OSU got beat, it usually got blown out. A 26-point loss to South Alabama. A 42-point loss to UCF. A 28-point loss to Texas. Sure, the Longhorns overmatched the Cowboys, but losing that badly to South Alabama and Central Florida? Yikes.
Best reason to feel good about OSU: The Cowboys were able to rally in a major way after a truly awful start to the season. That OSU played for a Big 12 title is a credit to the players, the coaching, the culture, the schemes, the belief. We saw evidence that some really good people and systems are in place in Stillwater.
Best reason to pack it in on the Cowboys: What took the coaches so long to figure out things? If they’d started the season with Bowman as the quarterback and Gordon as the feature back, this team may have won 10 games during the regular season.
Best non-game moment: OSU students going into the Theta Pond to retrieve the goal posts that were torn down after the Bedlam win. I wasn’t there to witness it, but our man Sam Hutchens told the story. Two fraternity brothers spent about 15 minutes in the cold, disgusting water trying to locate the part of the goal post that had sunk to the bottom. Once they retrieved it, they sliced it into pieces that they then gave away. They probably could’ve made a lot of money on the keepsakes, but instead, they shared the slices of Bedlam glory.
Best celebration: Cowboy fans storming the field after Bedlam. I know field stormings can be dangerous for those involved, especially when getting on the field involves an 8-foot wall like it does at OSU, but man, the emotion was so fun to watch. Adults running around like kids. Families posing for photos. The sheer jubilation was hard to top.
Best interview: There were lots of Cowboys who are great with those of us in the media. Gordon. Bowman. Brennan Presley. Collin Oliver. Xavier Benson. But the best was Leon Johnson. Much like the fans, the media didn’t find out how great he was until the back half of the season when he started to play, but he was a treat to talk to. Engaging. Comfortable. I don’t know if the transfer receiver has any chance of getting another year of eligibility, but I’d be for it.