Oh, Oklahoma State. As awful as this is about to be, you had to know it was coming.
The Cowboys are 10-1 and one win away (at home against Oklahoma Saturday) from claiming their second Big 12 title in three years. That's beyond impressive.
Still, there's the sickening reminder of what's keeping the Pokes from possibly playing for a BCS National Championship instead of a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
Its name is 30-21. That was the score of Oklahoma State's loss to West Virginia in late September. It's a score that seems inexplicable now. The Mountaineers have won just a single game since then and finished the season at 4-8. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, found its mojo and have won seven straight, including a thorough 49-17 dismantling of then-No. 4 Baylor.
Thanks to Auburn's stunning win over Alabama—it's still not clear if that actually happened or if it's merely a figment of our collective imagination—the door to the BCS National Championship just opened a little wider. But instead of arguing whether Ohio State or the SEC champion should play Florida State for that title, the debate could have been between the Buckeyes and the Pokes.
It's all for naught now, but two months later, that loss in Morgantown continues to perplex, well, just about everyone:
How did this Oklahoma State team lose to West Virginia? One of the season's enduring mysteries— Smart Football (@smartfootball) November 24, 2013
How in the ever-loving hell did Oklahoma State lose to West Virginia?— Steve Greenberg (@SLGreenberg) November 24, 2013
So I'm left with the question - How in the would did Oklahoma State lose to WVU?— Sean Adams (@thatsean) November 24, 2013
How did Oklahoma State lose to West Virginia?— College Spun (@CollegeSpun) November 24, 2013
How in the world did Oklahoma State lose to West Virginia??— Nick Mathews (@Nick_Mathews) November 24, 2013
The short answer is that Oklahoma State on that day was a good team that 1) had a bad day and 2) hadn't hit its stride yet on offense.
Kicker Ben Grogan missed two field goals, including a 23-yarder in the fourth quarter that was nothing more than an extra point. Special teams in general were awful that day, but Grogan is far from the only player who deserves blame.
J.W. Walsh, who was the starting quarterback at the time, had a rough dayl, completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing two interceptions. He didn't have a ton of help from his receivers, either. Tracy Moore and Jhajuan Seales had costly drops.
Oklahoma State's offense was definitely out of sync. That happens. The key difference between then and now, though, was the lack of a running game. Jeremy Smith, whose 15 carries against West Virginia, were second on the team, gained only a single yard. Walsh, a gifted runner, averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on his team-high 16 rushes.
The Pokes have been significantly better on offense since the Iowa State win in October when running back Desmond Roland rushed for more than 200 yards. That's when the Cowboys' offensive line started blocking better, head coach Mike Gundy said on Monday's Big 12 coaches teleconference.
The re-emergence of quarterback Clint Chelf is also a big part of why Oklahoma State's offense has been operating more smoothly. In addition to being the better passer of the two quarterbacks, he's an underrated athlete who has been a good complement in the running game.
As ESPN's Jake Trotter notes, Chelf was not a fixture for Oklahoma State's offense in Morgantown:
To everyone who keeps asking how West Virginia beat Oklahoma St., the answer is simple. Clint Chelf was on the sidelines.— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) November 24, 2013
Defensively, Oklahoma State had a solid game plan for the Mountaineers. The Pokes took away the run (WVU had 71 yards on 36 attempts) and played West Virginia's receivers tight.
For all of West Virginia's offensive problems, the Mountaineers actually have a couple good deep threats at wide receiver, including Mario Alford. Quarterback Clint Trickett went deep a number of times despite lacking arm strength, and the results were mixed. The Pokes' defensive backs won some battles (two interceptions) and lost others that ended up resulting in touchdowns. It's that simple.
Defense hasn't been an issue for Oklahoma State, which is No. 2 nationally in turnover margin and No. 5 in red-zone defense. It was solid against West Virginia, and it's even better now. With the offense catching up, the Cowboys are a complete team capable of competing with just about anyone.
It just took them a while to get there, and some pieces had to be replaced.