SAN ANTONIO — First, the fireworks exploded, white-hot bursts of light, streaking skyward. Then, a rainbow of balloons drifted down from the Alamodome ceiling. Last, a 64-color kaleidoscope of confetti was set in every direction.
And that was just the postgame celebration.
“It was fun, man,” said Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, probably talking about the Thursday night fiesta but certainly also thinking about the Cowboys’ 38-8 Alamo Bowl victory over Colorado. “That’s what you play for, what you work for all year, those moments when you get to look up at the balloons and just think about what it took to get here.”
OSU took apart their Big 12 Conference expatriates (and Pac-12 runner-up) in all phases, with a quick-strike offense that met the Buffaloes’ defensive strength head-on, with a defense that was unexpectedly physical and aggressive, and with special teams units that were nearly flawless.
No. 12-ranked OSU finishes the year at 10-3, while the 10th-ranked Buffaloes are 10-4.
And afterward, recognizing it was just the eighth 10-win season in program history (fifth in the Mike Gundy era), and just the third time ever the Cowboys have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons, it was party time for Gundy and his team.
“Yeah, man, I just kind of stood back and reflected just on how far we’ve come as a team — even how far I’ve come,” said senior safety Jordan Sterns. “… I was just reflecting, thinking about how grateful I was.”
The real fireworks show, of course, started about three hours earlier. That’s when Rudolph started throwing the football to James Washington.
Washington, named the game’s offensive MVP after nine passes for 171 yards and a touchdown, took the Buffaloes’ vaunted man-to-man defense by the horns and rode it until he suffered a broken/dislocated left pinky finger trying to make another end zone grab in the third quarter.
Just like he did in September when Pittsburgh refused to roll any safety help on Washington and he scorched the Panthers for 296 receiving yards and won national player of the week honors, Washington roasted the Buffs’ corners all night, first starter Chidobe Awuzie and then backup Isaiah Oliver.
Awuzie suffered some kind of foot injury in bowl practice, CU coach Mike MacIntyre said, and Ahklello Witherspoon on the other side apparently also hurt his shoulder in practice.
“Tried to play. Tried to play as hard as they could,” MacIntyre said. “We had some freak injuries that were crazy that happened in our practices. It was just crazy. They tried to play. They hadn’t even practiced in over a week and a half. They tried to play and give all they could.
“They’re a good football team.”
If the Buffs’ coaching staff still made the players stay in man coverage, the players’ health status might not have mattered. Washington’s one-on-one skills are just too good.
“It was a good secondary, we knew that going in,” Rudolph said. “We felt like they hadn’t been challenged all year. Coach Gundy wanted us to take some shots, challenge them on the outside. We did that. Made big-time plays, receivers came down with it, made my job a lot easier.”
It also couldn’t have helped Colorado that defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt went to Oregon just two weeks ago.
“I don’t think we missed a beat at all,” MacIntyre said. “I just think Washington caught the ball on us some. … Rudolph made a couple good throws like he does, and Washington beat us on a couple things.”
Gundy estimated that Colorado might have used man coverage against Washington 75 percent of the time before he left in the second half, “but that’s what they do. Even when they’re in a zone coverage, essentially it’s man. That’s what they live in. … Two of the deep balls were right there in front of me on our sidelines; James just ran right by that guy. Maybe they underestimated how fast he is.
“I think Mason throws a nice deep ball, and I think we have guys that can go get it. We practice throwing the deep ball a lot. I think it makes us better.”
Rudolph completed 22-of-32 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns. Washington, Jhajuan Seales (three catches, 43 yards) and Blake Jarwin (two catches, 20 yards) scored touchdowns, and Jalen McCleskey had four catches for 50 yards. Austin Hays’ 13-yard diving grab of a third-and-10 Rudolph throw extended OSU’s first touchdown drive.
The catch of the day (well, sort of; Hays and McCleskey made acrobatic grabs, and Washington had about four of them) probably belonged to Rudolph himself, who toward the end of a second-quarter touchdown drive handed off to Chris Carson, then sprinted to his left. Carson, running hard to his right, stopped, wheeled and slung a pass to Rudolph, who was uncovered and escorted by four blockers. Rudolph picked up 24 yards before plowing over the only defender in his path.
“That was fun. Fun to pull out one of those trick plays and execute it well,” Rudolph said. “In hindsight, I probably should have hurdled him.”
“I would not be a big fan,” Gundy interjected.
Carson scored on a 10-yard burst on the next play, giving the Cowboys a 10-0 lead.
Washington’s 5-yard snag of a quick slant put OSU up 17-0 at halftime, and Jarwin’s 6-yard TD on a play-action fake made it 24-0 midway through the third quarter. With five seconds left in the third, Rudolph dropped a perfect 23-yard throw to Seales in the back of the end zone on a deep post to swell the lead to 31-0.
Buffs QB Sefo Liufau finally got his team in the end zone with a 6-yard run, then completed a 2-point conversion to make it 31-8 with 5:28 to play.
But O-State got it right back when Justice Hill sliced through a worn out CU defense with a 37-yard run with 3:44 left.
Hill finished with 100 rushing yards on 19 carries, while Carson gained 61 on 11 attempts.
OSU’s real stars of the game, however, were on defense.
Defensive MVP Vincent Taylor (team-high seven tackles, including one of three OSU quarterback sacks) led a surge up front that dominated the Buffs’ blockers and disrupted anything Liufau tried.
MacIntyre said Liufau was hobbled by a chronically sore ankle sprain — he was sacked twice midway through the second quarter and didn’t return until the start of the fourth — and was limited in what he could do.
Again, even a healthy Liufau would have had no escape from an OSU defense that compiled nine tackles for loss. Chad Whitener and Trey Carter each had 1 ½ TFLs, and Jarrell Owens and Cole Walterscheid each had two quarterback hurries.
Running back Phillip Lindsay was the Buffs’ best threat on offense, gaining 63 rushing yards on 14 carries and 103 receiving yards on six catches. But even Lindsay couldn’t find a groove against the OSU defense. Seven of his 20 touches went for zero or negative yardage.
“I challenged them the first practice in a meeting to blitz, to attack, to be aggressive, to be the most physical team on the field,” Gundy said. “That’s what they did tonight. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it (doesn’t). But it worked for us tonight.”
“Man,” said Sterns, “we just know what we’re capable of. The last three games of the season, I think the defense really played great. We played with a savage mentality. That showed today. Really, it’s just about being physical. We were.”
Ultimately, OSU’s team speed overwhelmed the Buffs.
But maybe no Cowboy was faster than their coach.
“Big Daddy over here, he kind of evaded the Gatorade dump,” Rudolph said. “It kind of pissed me off. He saw us, got away at the last second.”
“Got eyes in the back of my head,” Gundy said. “ … The mullet kind of blocks the view. But when you’re as small as I am and you play at this level, you have to learn to avoid contact at all times. Eyes in the back of your head helps.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.