OSU’s 27-15 win at Arizona State looks a lot like Boise State

OSU’s 27-15 win at Arizona State looks a lot like Boise State

The Cowboys came to the desert mountains and won a game they could have lost. Just like Boise State 2021.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 10, 2023, 6:28am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 10, 2023, 6:28am CDT

TEMPE, Arizona — Collin Oliver doesn’t like to bring up history. Not to his teammates. They’re 19, 20, 21 years old. Twenty-year-olds want a history lesson about as much as they want a speeding ticket.

But Oliver is a three-year Cowboy, which makes him a grizzled veteran in this transfer portal era. And he gave in to temptation as he stood on the sidelines in the desert of Mountain America Stadium on Saturday night.

“It’s funny, I was on the sidelines telling the guys, sometimes, it just feels like deja vu,” said Oliver, the pass-rushing whiz from Edmond Santa Fe. 

Feels like Boise.

Oliver’s Cowboys came to the Valley of the Sun and won a game they could have lost, beating Arizona State 27-15. Just as they went to Treasure Valley in September 2021 and won a game they could have lost, beating Boise State 21-20.

“The environment, first away game, all that stuff, it really came back to me,” Oliver said. “Reminded me of Boise State.”

Even down to the mountain terrain and a deficit. The ‘21 Cowboys trailed Boise State 20-7. The current Cowboys trailed Arizona State 15-7, with a variety of snafus.

That 2021 OSU team opened the season with a tense victory (23-16) over Division I-AA Missouri State. Then those Cowboys survived Tulsa 28-23, before the Boise adventure.

This 2023 OSU opened the season a week ago with a tense (27-13) victory over Division I-AA Central Arkansas. Then came this ASU trip.

And many of the participants in both acknowledged the similarities.

Mike Gundy: “It was a lot like that. Both opening games were ugly. Then we got into a game where we could lose, on the road.”

Flanker Brennan Presley: “This one in an eerie way had a little bit of a Boise sense.”

Offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn: “No doubt about it. And we just kind of kept getting better and better and better.”

Nobody in orange is in any mood to hear about comparisons to that magical 2021 season, when the Cowboys came within a few inches in the Big 12 Championship Game of qualifying for the College Football Playoff.

Too many missed tackles. Too many stuffings on run plays. Too many quarterback questions. Too many quarterbacks period.

Even a 12-point win at Arizona State from the seemingly indomitable Pac-12 wasn’t overly satisfying. The Cowboys were mostly blah most of the night. They didn’t find a quarterback — the three-man weave of Alan Bowman, Gunnar Gundy and Garrett Rangel continued, only in a different order — and were late finding a running game and a pass rush.

Through two games, this OSU team doesn’t look like a bowl team, much less a Big 12 contender. But neither did that 2021 team coming out of Boise.

“I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Dunn said. “I really do. I’m not saying it’s 2021 and you’re going to find us knocking on the door of a national championship berth, but we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all, if you see us in the hunt at the end. I know it’s not as sexy as everybody wants, everybody wants 45-10. I get that. But it didn’t start that way for us in ‘21.”

Arizona State is not a major test. The Cowboy opponents will get much more difficult. First-year head coach Kenny Dillingham reworked his roster through the portal and is facing a major rebuild. Not everyone is Deion Sanders.

But the Sun Devils have athletes, and they had a 15-10 halftime lead. Then the Cowboys dominated the second half, outscoring ASU 17-0 and outgaining the Sun Devils 163-105 in yards.

The Boise similarities aren’t absolute. OSU found a tailback, Jaylen Warren, in that game two years ago. It would be nice if the Cowboys had found a quarterback Saturday night, but they didn’t. There didn’t seem to be a dime’s worth of difference between Bowman, Gundy and Rangel. That derby will have to be solved some other Saturday.

But there’s something to be said for winning while you’re figuring out things. That’s what that 2021 team did, and that’s what this team has done through two mostly-lackluster games.

“We’re going to need every practice, and we’re going to need to be really good coaches,” Gundy said. “Right now, we’re not as dynamic as what some of the teams that you’ve seen us over the past 15 years.

“So we have to be really good coaches. We gotta play really good defense, not give up big plays and tackle. If we don’t turn it over, it’s going to give us a chance. If we get into the turnover deal, the way we’re operating, it’ll be tough sledding.”

The Cowboys committed no turnovers and had the equivalent of four takeaways — Lyrik Rawls’ interception and three fourth-down stops.

OSU also was a little lucky. Early fourth quarter, with the Cowboys up 17-15, Sun Devil receiver Xavier Guillory found himself in the clear on a slant pattern, with Cowboy safety Trey Rucker several steps behind and no one in position to impede Guillory from a 67-yard touchdown. Freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada made a solid throw. And Guillory dropped the pass.

Some from the Cowboy contingent talked optimistically. “Sky’s the limit,” Oliver said. “If you want me to be honest, I have a great idea of how good we can be and how great we can be. Sky’s the limit, Big 12 championship.” Others were more pragmatic.

“Honestly, I have no idea how good we can be,” said Presley, whose 16-yard touchdown catch from Rangel put away the game.

And aren’t we all in Presley’s camp? No idea how good these Cowboys can be. No idea how good these Cowboys are.

All we know is they came to the desert and won a game they could have lost. Just like Boise.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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