STILLWATER, Okla. – The bonds No. 12 Oklahoma State has built overcoming adversity are going to be put to the test.
A disappointing 30-21 loss to West Virginia on Sept. 28 seems to have galvanized Oklahoma State (8-1, 5-1 Big 12) and the Cowboys have reeled off five straight victories despite several key injuries and changes at both running back and quarterback.
With the toughest part of their schedule coming up, beginning with a visit Saturday to No. 23 Texas (7-2, 6-0), the Cowboys will need to keep improving to have a chance to win the Big 12 Conference championship. They still have to play No. 4 Baylor and No. 22 Oklahoma.
"I don't think there's any question that we are a much better football team than we were a month and a half ago," coach Mike Gundy said. "That's a credit to the players. They've made a decision to work hard together and improve, and they have. I like our leadership and I like the maturity of our team right now and I like their chemistry."
While it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when the bonding process began, it certainly appeared to accelerate following the loss at West Virginia.
"It is a big thing that can cause us to come together, but at the same time, there were times after that I don't think we were clicking yet, but that still could have brought a lot of focus to us," senior safety Daytawion Lowe said of the West Virginia game. "I think the focus part really got a hold of us. I just think it just started getting better and better each week and it's the best right now."
Gundy pointed out that one byproduct of a team that feels a closer bond is that individuals are more inclined to make sacrifices that help the team.
"These guys have learned to play together and support each other, and they're playing unselfish," Gundy said. "You'll see a number of defensive guys that are playing a role in the game and they're helping our team in their role. You'll see offensive players, particularly receivers that may not get as many catches, that are really playing hard and blocking down the field, and running backs blocking for each together. That's helping our team grow together."
The offense has thrived since senior Clint Chelf replaced sophomore J.W. Walsh at quarterback and junior Desmond Roland took over from senior Jeremy Smith as the primary running back, as OSU has racked up 152 points in its last three games.
Walsh and Smith have remained engaged and committed to the team's success, and the Cowboys have kept rolling despite injuries on both sides of the ball, including to leading receiver and punt returner Josh Stewart, who is uncertain for Saturday's game.
"We've been fortunate that when we've had injuries, we've had some maturity and experience to put in the game," Gundy said. "We've had some receivers that have been out, but the guys who are playing behind them have some experience. And we've been in the same situation on defense. That allows us to keep our game plan."
Building team chemistry can be an elusive process, but the Cowboys feel it now and plan to make the most of it.
"I guess you never really know when it's going to click in," senior receiver Charlie Moore said. "It has now, so we're just going to build on that and support each other chasing this goal we all have.
"We're all friends and we're teammates, we're brothers, and it just makes it that much more special. Once you build those relationships inside the locker room and outside, it just helps to play for each other. That's how you win in college football."