Though Oklahoma State is just outside the preseason AP Top 25, coach Mike Gundy still feels good about his squad heading into the season opener against Missouri State on Saturday.
“I’m excited about where we’re at,” Gundy said. “I’m excited about where the team is from a competitive standpoint. We have a few young players that’ll get a chance to compete based on where we’re at in the depth chart. Guys are in good shape and moving forward."
Oklahoma State should once again have a potent offense. Starting quarterback Spencer Sanders is back. So are last year’s backup running backs — L.D. Brown, Dezmon Jackson and Dominic Richardson — who each had games of 100-plus yards rushing last season.
The defense should be solid too, with nine returning starters from the group that anchored last season's 8-3 finish.
Missouri State, which plays in the Missouri Valley Conference and reached the FCS playoffs last spring for the first time in 30 years, will be playing an early-season game in Oklahoma for the third time in four seasons. Last year, they lost 48-0 at Oklahoma; in 2018, they fell 58-17 at Oklahoma State.
“Obviously, we play a great opponent in Oklahoma State, one that we respect tremendously,” said second-year Bears coach Bobby Petrino. “I think our players are excited for the opportunity and certainly looking forward to the challenge. We've just got to go out and compete as hard as we can for four quarters.”
Oklahoma State has seven “super seniors,” all starters, who decided to play the extra year that the NCAA offered players due to the chaotic 2020 COVID-19 season. Starting running back L.D. Brown, receiver Tay Martin, tight end Logan Carter, linebacker Devin Harper, cornerback Christian Holmes and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez all are back from last year's squad. Center Danny Godlevske, a transfer from Miami, Ohio, also took advantage of the extra year.
“The super seniors, at whatever school, is a huge advantage,” Gundy said. “That’s 20-something percent, if you have 22 starters and put four or five guys out there. That’s what those guys can do.”
SHELLEY MAKING BEARS DEBUT
Missouri State’s starting quarterback will be senior Jason Shelley, who arrived via the transfer portal from Utah State, where he started four games last year, completing 51-of-99 passes for 420 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Shelley also played two years at Utah, starting five games from 2018-19.
“I feel like he had a great camp,” Petrino said of Shelley, who beat out last year’s starter, Jaden Johnson, for the job. “His experience really showed up throughout practices — his ability to adjust to the defense and get the ball out of his hand.”
While Oklahoma State lost former national rushing champion Chuba Hubbard to the NFL, the Cowboys enter this season with four good running backs, and each of them should see action Saturday. Brown, Jackson and Richardson are joined by Utah State transfer Jaylen Warren to form a deep backfield.
“We’re very fortunate because we have a number of guys we trust who can carry the ball and be effective for us,” Gundy said. “I’ve never had the luxury of having this many backs. We have the luxury of not letting one player get completely fatigued, and/or getting beat up throughout the season.”
Despite playing just 10 games last season, Missouri State set a new school record with 27 sacks. The Bears actually had 18 different players contribute to the overall sack total, led by senior defensive end Kevin Ellis, who had six sacks and eight tackles for loss.
“Kevin’s really good against the run and a really good pass-rusher, can drop in coverage,” Petrino said. “He’s a guy we ask to do a lot of things, but he’s the ultimate playmaker, particularly when the game is on the line.” Ellis and the Missouri State pass rush will need to have a strong game to have any chance at an upset.
THE DEFENSE RESTS
For Oklahoma State’s defense, will experience translate into results? The Cowboys’ secondary unit alone returns five different players who have started at least 10 games, ranking second in the nation with 117 total starts among the group, behind only No. 17 Indiana. On defense overall, 10 different players have played 30 or more games in their careers.