(Ben’s OSU newsletter makes checking email fun every week. Subscribe here)
STILLWATER — Most football plays are lost to time. It takes a special, or infamous, couple of seconds for a play to live beyond that night’s box score and into the next season.
Oklahoma State had some of those moments in 2023 that didn’t seem so important at the time, but have impacted 2024.
Running back Ollie Gordon’s 71-yard rush against Iowa State started Oklahoma State’s first conference game off right. Safety Trey Rucker forced a fumble against BYU, ending a laborious double overtime contest. Cameron Epps intercepted a pass against Kansas State and returned it for a touchdown to build a 20-7 halftime lead.
Here are plays from the 2023 season that matter for the Cowboy football team in 2024:
Ollie Gordon runs 71 yards up the left sideline against Iowa State
When: Sept. 23, Week Four.
Impact: Gordon announced his arrival to the college football world.
Gordon began the season in a timeshare with sophomore running back Jaden Nixon and senior Elijah Collins. After Gordon’s 71-yard sprint and 121 rushing yards on 18 carries against the Cyclones, it was impossible to look back.
Why it matters for 2024: Oklahoma State has a star.
Before this play, Gordon had 23 carries for 113 yards (4.9 yards per carry). Coach Mike Gundy said in December he didn’t know what he had in Gordon at that time.
After his run, he carried the ball 264 times for 1,619 yards (6.13 yards per carry). Gordon took over the Oklahoma State backfield and burst onto the national radar.
OSU changed its running scheme to a more downhill, vertical style that played into Gordon’s biggest strength: his vision. Gordon led the nation with 1,732 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.
His breakaway against the Cyclones was, at the time, the longest run of his career and the play that ultimately put Gordon on a path to win the 2023 Doak Walker Award. It elevated his stardom on campus and nationally.
Gordon announced his return for the 2024 season on Christmas Eve with a video from president Kayse Shrum’s office, and the hype started.
Four starters on the offensive line have announced returns to block for Gordon. Senior quarterback Alan Bowman is back for his seventh year of college football along with leading receiver Brennan Presley.
After beating Texas A&M 31-23 in the Texas Bowl, Gordon set expectations for 2024 high.
“For one, we gotta make playoffs, New Year’s Six,” Gordon said. “I feel like the Heisman Trophy has to come back to Stillwater. I feel like that’s a huge thing.”
Trey Rucker strips BYU tight end Isaac Rex and recovers the fumble to secure a 40-34 win in double overtime
When: Nov. 25, Week 13.
Impact: Oklahoma State beat BYU, clinching a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Why it matters for 2024: Oklahoma State enters the season with a boosted profile.
It’s a new era of Big 12 football. Someone has to be king, and the Cowboys start 2024 closer to the throne than the dungeon.
With traditional conference powers Oklahoma and Texas (winners of five of the past seven conference championships) departed for the SEC, Big 12 supremacy is up for grabs.
Oklahoma State is the only team to play in the Big 12 Championship Game in two of the past three seasons. Gordon received a video message on ESPN from Barry Sanders after he won the Doak Walker Award. The Cowboy football brand is alive and well.
Last season, the Cowboys were coming off a disappointing 2022, had a new defensive coordinator and an unknown situation at quarterback. They were No. 7 in the Big 12 preseason media poll and a 2-2 start removed them from the national discussion.
A year later, the Cowboys won’t be sneaking up on teams. They will be talked about, especially during notable nonconference matchups with reigning FCS champion South Dakota State (Aug. 31) and Arkansas (Sep. 7). OSU is No. 18 in ESPN’s way-to-early 2024 top-25 rankings.
Alan Bowman’s 12-yard touchdown run against Iowa State
When: Sept. 23, Week Four.
Impact: A quarterback controversy was laid to rest.
Why it matters for 2024: The Cowboys have a clear quarterback picture entering the season.
It took eight months to make it official: Alan Bowman was the guy.
Bowman transferred to Oklahoma State on Jan. 9 after three seasons at Texas Tech and two at Michigan. Bowman began the 2023 season in a quarterback timeshare with freshman Garret Rangel and redshirt sophomore Gunnar Gundy.
The public learned an hour before OSU’s fourth game of the season against Iowa State that Bowman would play an entire game.
Bowman’s rushing touchdown put the Cowboys up 7-0 against the Cyclones and put the quarterback battle away.
“I think that kind of got the party started, for sure,” Bowman said.
Gundy didn’t say it after the game, a 34-27 loss where Bowman threw for 278 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, but the battle was over.
Bowman started the remaining 10 games, quarterbacking the Cowboys to consecutive wins against Kansas State, Kansas, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Oklahoma.
In the season finale, Bowman threw for a season-high 402 yards, making a case for why the job should be his in 2024. On Jan. 4, his medical hardship waiver was granted and he announced a return for his seventh season of college football.
Linebacker Justin Wright injures his leg against Central Arkansas
In the third quarter of the season-opener, Wright lined up on the left side of the defense. He took a step toward the line of scrimmage, rammed into a lineman and jogged in pursuit of running back Kylin James. A serious injury wasn’t apparent, but it was the last snap he’d play before returning against Iowa State three weeks later.
When: Sept. 2, Week One.
Impact: Wright, the third-ranked transfer in OSU’s 2023 class, played just 19 snaps in 2023. Sophomore linebacker Nick Martin took the position over and led the Big 12 in tackles.
Why it matters for 2024: The Cowboys return the best linebacker in the Big 12.
Nick Martin wasn’t supposed to play 930 snaps last season, the third-most on OSU. When Wright got hurt, Gundy turned the sophomore loose and got rewarded. Martin led the Big 12 with 140 tackles — 25 more than UCF’s Jason Johnson.
“The physical part can be tough,” Martin said. “Playing this many games in a season can take a toll on your body. But that’s where the mental part comes in. How bad do you want it?”
Martin’s physicality is what sets him apart. His mentality can be traced back to his East Texas roots. Teammates and coaches call him “The Missile” for his heat-seeking nature. He made 17 tackles against Kansas State and West Virginia and his 140 total were the most by a Cowboy since 1979.
Martin bested Malcolm Rodriguez’ 2021 season, something Gundy didn’t think was possible.
“Unbelievable, 140 tackles,” Gundy said. “How about that? We didn’t think anybody would ever touch Rodriguez.”
Cameron Epps’ 35-yard interception return for a touchdown against Kansas State.
Freshman safety Cameron Epps’ interception return for a touchdown against Kansas State was a turnaround from the previous game, when Oklahoma State’s young secondary gave up 348 passing yards and three touchdowns. (SARAH PHIPPS / USA TODAY NETWORK)
When: Oct. 6, Week Six.
Impact: Epps, a freshman, demonstrates that OSU’s young secondary can improve with time.
Why it matters for 2024: OSU’s biggest defensive weakness could become a strength.
When freshman safety Cameron Epps celebrated his touchdown by dropping the ball and pointing at the camera, the screaming sea of fans had forgiven his errors the previous game against Iowa State.
Epps and the Cowboy defense gave up 348 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 34-27 defeat two weeks prior against the Cyclones. One particularly nasty route in the third quarter left Epps on all-fours and ISU receiver Daniel Jackson wide open in the end zone. Epps spent his bye week studying film and it paid off with the first two interceptions of his career against K-State.
“That bye week I thought our kids looked in the mirror and said, ‘We know we’re a better football team than this,’” Nardo said. “‘We know we’re a better defense than this.’”
Epps played all 14 games as a freshman, starting 10. Freshman corner D.J. McKinney also played 14 games and started once. Sophomore Cam Smith started every game. Even freshman corner Dylan Smith, who was headed toward a redshirt season before Lyrik Rawls injured his left leg in September, played 280 snaps, including against Oklahoma receiver in Bedlam’s final defensive stand.
McKinney transferred to Colorado on Jan. 7. The Cowboys brought in redshirt senior safety Kobe Hylton who led UTEP defensive backs with 54 tackles last season. The rest of the young secondary core has stayed together, meaning the Cowboy defense will have an experienced back end.