Why the Cowboys needed Gunnar Gundy to save them

Why the Cowboys needed Gunnar Gundy to save them

Jenni Carlson: A fourth-quarter rally kept the Cowboys from national ridicule. It does not shield them from serious questioning.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Sep 3, 2023, 12:25am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Sep 3, 2023, 12:25am CDT

STILLWATER — Gunnar Gundy ran towards his celebrating teammates in the end zone, then stopped short, crouching down a bit, balling his fists and letting out a mighty roar.

Everyone expected to see him playing in the fourth quarter Saturday; there’d be mop-up duty against a lower-division opponent, after all. 

No one expected him or any other Oklahoma State quarterback to be playing game-saving (maybe not season-saving but definitely pride-saving) minutes in crunch time. Not against Central Arkansas. Not against an FCS team.

But there Gundy and the Cowboys were, fighting for their Power Five lives.

What chastisement would’ve befallen them had they lost to the Bears. Think UMBC beating Virginia in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Or Appalachian State beating Michigan on the Wolverines’ gridiron.

Instead, the Cowboys survived.

OSU 27, Central Arkansas 13.

Even though that kept the Cowboys from national ridicule, it did not shield them from serious questioning. How could they only score 27 points against an FCS team? How could they allow almost 400 yards of offense? 

How could they find themselves in real danger of defeat in the fourth quarter?

This result is troubling.

Now, it might not be season defining. Two years ago, OSU had a less-than-impressive performance in its season opener against an FCS team. Missouri State actually had a chance to score in the final minutes in that game and notch the big upset.

Didn’t happen.

The Cowboys escaped with a win that night, too.

Three months later, they played for a Big 12 title.

A month after that, they beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

So, a tighter-than-expected fit against a lower-division team does not a season define. But what we saw Saturday against Central Arkansas was certainly illuminating.

“Found out a little bit about our team,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said.

He surely can’t like everything that was uncovered.

For starters, the run game that Gundy has been so adamant that the Cowboys improve was only so-so. It was actually crappy for the first three quarters, managing only 52 yards on 17 carries and averaging only 3.1 yards a play.

Bleck.

“You guys are up higher than me,” Gundy said, referring to the media’s bird’s-eye view from the press box. “Didn’t look like we had holes, anywhere to run.” 

Didn’t look that way from high above either. The offensive line did little to help open seams, much less holes for the Cowboy tailbacks to run through. Now, the line was operating shorthanded — where have we heard that before? — as Preston Wilson was held out for non-injury reasons and Jake Springfield left the game with an injury in the first half. 

The Cowboys picked up the production in the fourth quarter, finishing with 149 yards on 31 carries, a much more respectable average of 4.8 yards. But that’s the type of yardage they should’ve had throughout the game.

“Frustrating’s a good word,” Gundy said.

“We went to a couple different things late in the game where we had some space, so guys could get out there and make plays better, but that’s gotta start in the first quarter. It’s going to be difficult as the season goes on if we’re rushing for three yards a carry and become one dimensional.”

It was difficult Saturday night.

The Cowboys punted on five of the nine possessions they had in the first three quarters. Five. Over half. 

And three of the five were three-and-outs.

The poor run game in the first three quarters wasn’t the only reason for that poor production – there were way too many dropped passes by receivers, too – but not being able to pound the ball on the ground was worrisome. 

Also worrisome: some lacking defensive fundamentals. Tackling. Covering certain routes. Did I mention tackling?

It was woeful for most of the game. Central Arkansas ballcarriers repeatedly slipped through the grasp of would-be Cowboy tacklers. Or sidestepped them. Or eluded them all together.

But frankly, that doesn’t seem as troubling as the run-game issues. The Cowboys, after all, don’t tackle a ton in practice. Gundy admitted that he wanted there to be tackling, but then if players get hurt, there’s a hesitancy to pull back.

A balance can be difficult to strike.

“If we knew the solution, we would sell it and we could retire,” Gundy said, but he didn’t excuse the poor tackling. “We’re gonna talk about that (among the coaches). We need to tackle better.”

That’s likely to improve somewhat organically.

“You’re thinking, ‘Yeah, I have to go tackle this guy,’” Cowboy defensive back Korie Black said, “but I haven’t tackled anybody since probably months ago. 

“But we got better as the game progressed, so it was good to see that.”

Even though 13 points was about 13 more points than I thought Central Arkansas was going to score, I tend to think the defense overall will continue to get better this season. OSU kept things pretty basic and vanilla Saturday. Few blitzes or stunts or tricks. Mix in a bit of that, and the Cowboys will be even better.

But I don’t quite know what to make of the offense. Yes, the run game is most problematic, but the quarterback situation is a bit of a head scratcher, too. Even though one guy will undoubtedly emerge, Alan Bowman or Garret Rangel or Gunnar Gundy, who it will be is less clear after Saturday.

I’ve long thought Bowman would be the starter, but he didn’t start Saturday, and quite honestly, he played the poorest of the three. He was 13 of 24 for 80 yards, though at least three of his incompletions were bad drops by the receivers, and he was sacked once.

Rangel started and was solid, 10 of 15 for 118 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He looks nothing like the true freshman who was pushed into emergency duty last season when Spencer Sanders was injured. Rangel is confident, smooth, calm.

But Gundy was most impressive. 

He came in with a little under five minutes left in the third quarter. The plan was for the three quarterbacks to each play a third of the game, and even though the Cowboys found themselves only leading 13-7 when it was Gundy’s turn to enter the game, they didn’t deviate from the plan and he entered the game.

And promptly went three-and-out.

His second possession started as shakily as his first. He overthrew Brennan Presley on the first play, then a few plays later almost sailed another one over Presley. But the Cowboy receiver made a tough snag of the ball. 

“I don’t care if it’s Mike Gundy throwing it to me,” Presley said. “I’ve got to go out there and make the plays.”

That catch seemed to settle Gunnar Gundy a bit. He completed three of his next four passes, moving the Cowboys inside the 20-yard line and setting up a nice 17-yard touchdown run from Elijah Collins.

That extended OSU’s lead to two touchdowns, a cushion that would grow to three touchdowns on the Cowboys next possession.

Gundy finished the game 7 of 9 for 106 yards and added two rushes for 20 yards.

“Well,” a Cowboy booster said while riding the elevator down from the suite level toward the end of the game, “looks like Gundy is our quarterback.”

No one in the packed car tried to argue it.

Cowboys everywhere might not have expected such a thing to be possible going into the opener, but on a night where the unexpected became the reality, Gunnar Gundy assuming the lead in the quarterback battle seemed the least of OSU’s concerns.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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