STILLWATER, Okla. — The Big 12 Conference race was supposed to run through the state of Oklahoma.
Maybe it still will. But Saturday afternoon at Boone Pickens Stadium, TCU created a potential detour.
Unfazed once again in the face of a sellout crowd, the No. 16 Horned Frogs were mostly dominant in their 44-31 victory over No. 6 Oklahoma State, crashing the Big 12 Bedlam party scheduled for Nov. 4 — and possibly crushing the Cowboys’ hopes for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“We want to be relevant,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said after the game. “You want to win enough to get noticed. It was also an advantage that no one was giving us a chance. We play better that way.”
Oklahoma State (3-1, 0-1 Big 12) had faced little resistance in its nonconference slate this season, routing Tulsa, South Alabama and Pittsburgh by a combined score of 162-52. But in TCU (4-0, 1-0), the Cowboys faced a team that played with passion and precision.
“We didn’t play very smart and very disciplined,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said, “and really, we got outcoached.”
Oklahoma State got outmatched in other areas, too. The Cowboys had two first-time starters on the offensive line, and the Horned Frogs exposed that weakness by limiting the Cowboys running game to just 101 yards on 31 attempts.
Meanwhile, if quarterback Mason Rudolph harbored any realistic Heisman hopes, they were likely melted on a scorching autumn Saturday with a dismal 22-of-41 performance that netted 398 passing yards but also resulted in two touchdown, two interceptions, three sacks and a back-breaking fumble.
But none of Rudolph’s picks probably was as damaging as the one thrown on the goal line in the fourth quarter on a double-pass by wide receiver Jalen McCleskey. TCU's Nick Orr drifted back in coverage and easily intercepted McCleskey’s throw with just 6:06 to play and the Cowboys driving with momentum.
The play by offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich was largely derided as an unnecessary risk, but Gundy defended the call.
“They (TCU) were tired. It was, what, the sixth or seventh play of the drive. That’s when you do those things,” Gundy said. “Would you like to have it back? Well, hell yeah I’d like to have it back. Now.”
On the other side, TCU quarterback Kenny Hill was 22 of 33 for 228 yards with a touchdown and a pick — a safe and conservative passing plan that complemented the Horned Frogs’ dominating run game: 238 total yards, including a career-high 160 and three touchdowns from Darius Anderson. His 42-yard touchdown run on third-and-1 clinched it with 2:37 to play.
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TCU was almost magical on third down, converting 11 of 19 attempts — including crucial plays of third-and-7, third-and-11, third-and-15, third-and-6 and third-and-11 plays that either led to scores or at least kept an exhausted Oklahoma State on the defense a while longer. That was a major factor in minimizing an Oklahoma State offense that came in ranked third nationally in total offense, fourth in scoring and seventh in passing.
That was also what helped TCU get its first road win against Oklahoma State since the Horned Frogs joined the Big 12 Conference.
“The quarterback (Rudolph) is a really good player,” Patterson said. “The wide receiver (James Washington) is a really good player. The running back (Justice Hill) is a really good player. It’s hard to beat Oklahoma State, especially in Stillwater. Obviously, we hadn’t been able to do that.”
TCU also improved to 35-10 in road games since 2009, the nation’s third-best road record.
With Oklahoma’s unexpected struggle Saturday night at Baylor, TCU may have inserted itself into the national narrative, and certainly goes into the rest of the season as a Big 12 contender. The Horned Frogs play Oklahoma in Fort Worth on Nov. 11 — a week after the Sooners visit Oklahoma State.
But the Big 12 was served notice on Saturday: Take nothing for granted. The Cowboys were a 13-point favorite heading into this game. Oklahoma was a 28-point favorite at Baylor. In this league, it truly is one game at a time — and nobody feels that cliché more than Patterson.
“People handle failure better than they handle success,” Patterson said on his postgame radio show. “Now, can we handle everybody telling us how great we are?"