STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) It took a miraculous comeback in the final regular-season game for Oklahoma State to become bowl eligible last season, and a win in the Cactus Bowl to post a winning record at 7-6.
The Cowboys hope that momentum carries over.
It was Oklahoma State's school-record ninth straight year in a bowl game, and squad that started practicing this past week, hopes to extend it even further.
Coach Mike Gundy believes that the positive energy from both the squad's amazing win over rival Oklahoma - in which it trailed 35-21 with 5 minutes remaining before rallying to win in overtime - as well as the bowl victory over Washington, can still be felt today.
''That's carried over,'' said Gundy, who is beginning his 11th year at the helm of his alma mater. ''There's just a good attitude around the team and people associated with Oklahoma State football. The first few practices have gone well, we were in full pads today, and (I liked) the excitement and the players' effort.''
One of the catalysts for the late-season turnaround was quarterback Mason Rudolph, a freshman who burned his redshirt year when he started the final three contests. Now a more experienced sophomore, he has already won the starting job from senior J.W. Walsh, and credits offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich with helping him improve during the offseason.
''I feel like I was young, made a lot of mistakes,'' Rudolph said about his performance last year, when he completed 49 of 86 passes for 853 yards, with six touchdowns and four interceptions. ''Coach Yurcich has advanced my game a whole lot, just able to read coverage and to make decisions under pressure. They've been a big help for me as far as my maturing from spring to now.''
One of the issues that last year's team struggled with, especially during the midseason five-game losing streak that saw it fall from the No. 15 ranking to barely remaining bowl-eligible, was a very young offensive line. Besides the two seniors that have since moved on, Oklahoma State started six different linemen that had a grand total of two games of prior experience.
''In college football, the defensive ends have gotten bigger and faster and they're really active, and in run blocking, and certainly, protecting the quarterback - no matter what your offense is, you've got to be able to hold those guys off,'' Gundy said. ''It's very important. We went through a phase last year where we were really average at those positions and it makes it difficult to move the football.''
Oklahoma State also has added an experienced transfer, junior left tackle Victor Salako, who started 23 games the past two seasons at UAB before the program was dissolved. With him added to that group of six youngsters that all gained valuable game action, the overall unit should be significantly better.
''These are all guys that last year were just thrown in the fire,'' Gundy said. ''Now, they at least have some experience, so it gives us a head start on finding seven linemen. We feel like you have to find seven linemen that can play in order to have a good season and protect your quarterback and give yourself a chance.''
On defense, Oklahoma State lost four starters, but appears to have depth at just about every position except defensive tackle. Gundy is looking at sophomore Vincent Taylor and possibly Motekiai Maile, a junior transfer from Tyler Junior College, to fill that spot.
''We're not very experienced at that position,'' Gundy said. ''If we can get good defensive tackle play, if we have some young guys contribute, if Vince and Motekiai can hold their own in there and develop, and if we stay healthy, the depth that we have will allow us to play with a lot of speed, which in most cases means more turnovers. We have some experience on defense now. We should be able to run, and we have guys that are experienced tacklers. I'm really excited about watching them play. Their practices and their aggressiveness has been good to this point.''
Oklahoma State opens at Central Michigan on Sept. 3.
''I'm expecting us to be at a high level, to play fast, to do all the things the coaching staff wants us to do, to go out prepared,'' Rudolph said. ''The goal is to win a Big 12 championship. We're going to take it week by week and prepare for Central Michigan.''