HOUSTON — On the game’s first snap, Texas A&M quarterback Jaylen Henderson scrambled, jumped to avoid OSU’s Cameron Epps and landed hard. Henderson laid in obvious pain as medical personnel surrounded him and eventually air-casted his right arm.
It’s not easy to round up sympathy for A&M, college football’s poster child for largesse, but still. The Aggies were down to their fourth-string quarterback, true freshman Marcel Reed. They already were without 14 starters, due to transfer portal defections and skipping the game for NFL Draft reasons, and a massive chunk of their past and future coaching staffs.
Mike Gundy and Kasey Dunn might have acknowledged wincing a little at A&M’s plight. But the garlic in their soul ruled the day. They kept ordering passes to Rashod Owens and Brennan Presley.
On OSU’s second play of the Texas Bowl, Ollie Gordon blasted through a hole in the line and bulled his way to a 22-yard gain. Right then and there, we all figured this Wednesday night would be a celebration of Gordon’s Christmas Eve announcement that he would remain a Cowboy in 2024.
But Gundy and his offensive coordinator, Dunn, knew it was fool’s gold. A&M’s girth and depth and schematic commitment made things rough on Gordon. Which explains the scene 3½ hours later.
Owens walked into the OSU press conference holding the most valuable player trophy and wearing the ceremonial black Stetson that went with it.
Brennan Presley walked in with a band-aid on his face, hiding stitches required from a jarring third-quarter hit, and the Cowboy single-game receptions record.
“We dreamed of these moments,” Owens said. “We’re going to celebrate on it.”
And not to pick on the Aggies in their time of distress, but what a dichotomy.
Sometimes we give in to the belief that college football is mass chaos. That everyone has one foot in the portal or one foot in the draft.
But we forget that sometimes players stick around. Sometimes they tough it out. Sometimes they’re loyal. And sometimes those are the players you can count on.
OSU beat A&M 31-23 in the Texas Bowl, and sure, the Cowboys should have beaten the Aggies by more. But in this dog-eat-dog sport, in this every-man-for-himself and every-school-for-itself era, OSU will make no apologies.
Not for beating a short-handed A&M. And not for throwing the ball to Owens and Presley on dang near half (44%) the Cowboy plays, with A&M committed to stopping Gordon.
“For him to … have the season that he had and the game that he had, I love Rashod to death,” quarterback Alan Bowman said. “Just so happy for him.”
Owens and Presley came in together in OSU’s 2020 recruiting class. Yes, they are four-year Cowboys. Imagine that. And while Presley has been a vital part of every OSU gameplan since catching three touchdown passes in the 2020 Cheez-It Bowl against Miami, Owens was late to such status. A career backup until De’Zhaun Stribling’s season-ending injury in September.
OSU beat the Aggies because Bowman kept throwing to receivers who were lost in the glow of Gordon’s all-American season.
Owens caught 10 of the 15 passes targeted his way, for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Presley caught 16 of his 20 targets, for 152 yards.
Texas A&M was missing virtually its entire starting secondary, and the Cowboy coaches smelled hyde. They figured they had a big advantage with Presley on the perimeter and Owens deep.
The deep fade long has been a Cowboy staple. Justin Blackmon won two Biletnikoff Awards primarily because of the fade. James Washington and Tylan Wallace were aces on the lofted throws that ask a receiver to beat a cornerback one-on-one. Heck, Rashaun Woods caught an NCAA-record seven touchdown passes in a game against Southern Methodist 20 years ago, and fades were prominent in that bonanza.
The fade was prominent in OSU’s gameplan against Texas A&M.
Dunn “preached all week about taking shots, and we did,” Owens said. “If the ball’s in our air, it’s ours. We’re not called receivers, we’re called retrievers, really. We retrieve the ball and not just receive it.”
Owens’ two touchdowns came on fades, which basically are jump balls. He also hauled in long balls from Bowman that also were one-on-one plays, good for 30 and 34 yards.
Meanwhile, Owens’ 6-foot-5 Leon Johnson also got in on the good stuff, with catches for 32 and 33 yards, off deep throws.
No wonder Bowman threw for 402 yards, completing 34 of 49 passes.
“Obviously, they had some inexperienced guys out there on the perimeter, and we have experienced guys out on the perimeter,” Bowman said “Pretty much just going to throw it up to them … pick your poison. Those guys made unbelievable plays out there. Pretty easy to get 400 when you keep throwing it up.”
And when Bowman wasn’t throwing long, he was throwing wide, to Presley, whose darting after-catch yards are oxygen to OSU’s offense, especially with A&M loaded to stop Gordon. Between Gordon’s initial, 22-yard gain and his 25-yard run with 9½ minutes left in the game, Gordon gained just 58 yards on 20 carries.
“It’s hard for Ollie to run the ball, with the way they were playing,” Mike Gundy said. “Inserting an extra guy in the box … vacating the flats.
“That’s why we had to get the ball out on the perimeters, let these guys go up and make plays. We won the battle on the 50-50 throws, and when that happens at wideout, you’re generally going to have a good offensive day.”
Texas A&M was without eight or nine defensive starters, depending on your metric, and its secondary was wiped out.
That’s the nature of the modern bowl game. Lots of teams are missing their coach, lots of teams are missing their quarterback and some teams are missing both. A&M was in the both camp, plus all those defenders.
Not that the Cowboys are immune from such calamity. OSU last December was missing all kinds of key players in the portal, including quarterback Spencer Sanders, leading to a 24-17 loss to Wisconsin in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
This year, OSU had most of its team intact and was ready to pounce. But A&M played with pride and toughness. Reed made enough plays that with 5:07 left, the Aggies had drawn within eight points and were making the Cowboys sweat.
That’s when Gundy and Dunn stuck with the Texas Bowl playmakers. As tempting as it must have been to feed Gordon, they didn’t abandon their trust in the throw game.
Four of OSU’s first five plays on the ensuing drive, Bowman threw, completing all four, three to Presley and one to Cale Cabbiness(!). The Cowboys eventually ran out all but the final 17 seconds and secured the victory.
“They’re crashing the gaps,” Gundy said of A&M’s defense. “They’re coming inside. And they had 1½ extra people in the box. Football is math. It’s a numbers game.
“We have to trust that we can throw and catch. There were times last year and early this year that we just tried to force it in there and beat our heads against the ball, and it didn’t work out for us. If they’re going to do that … you have to throw the ball.”
This was a victory for perseverance. Presley for sticking around when portal temptations no doubt came his way after so much playmaking. And Owens for fighting through the adversity of playing little and playing tight end when he did play.
But the Cowboys were wiped out at receiver in the portal last off-season and by injury in September. Owens hung in there, and in many ways he saved the Cowboys’ bacon. He entered this season with 25 career catches; he finished 2023 with 63 catches, for 895 yards.
“He has been the ultimate Cowboy for us, and doing whatever it takes,” Dunn said. “I’m just extremely happy for him.”
Owens is an emotional leader; was so even when he wasn’t playing much.
“It was hard and it was rough,” Owens said of his days of not playing. He admits he thought about leaving, but his circle, both family and teammates, encouraged him to stick it out.
“Everybody kept telling me just trust it, just wait,” Owens said. “I stayed patient and stayed true to them. I’m just blessed they gave me a shot.”
Not to turn this into a pity party, but before we get too far down the road of empathy for the Aggies, remember how the OSU receiving corps was wiped out. Johnson gave up his redshirt after six games, because the Cowboys were so short-handed due to injuries.
OSU historically has run players in and out of the receiver rotation, but there was little relief for Presley, Owens and Johnson. Johnson was at Division III George Fox University last season, and Owens was in playing-time purgatory.
But he didn’t succumb to the portal. Owens stuck it out and had quite the night in Houston.
“I think Rashod cares more about winning than 95 percent of our team,” Bowman said. “We all care about winning, but he just wants it more.
You see the passion he plays with. So just unbelievably happy for him.”
Sorry, Aggies. Sympathy is in short supply these days. The Cowboys are too happy to worry about A&M’s problems, too happy to reach 10 wins and too happy for a bowl MVP we never saw coming.