DALLAS – A battle of attrition in 2014 wound up salvaging Oklahoma State’s football season.
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy had full intentions of redshirting incoming freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph last year, but that became impossible when backup Daxx Garman was ruled out with a concussion prior to OSU’s game at Baylor on Nov. 22.
Gundy had no choice but to insert Rudolph, who quickly showed he was clearly the Cowboys’ most talented quarterback.
Rudolph wasn’t weaned into college football by playing a soft nonconference schedule. Instead, his three rookie starts all came on the road – at No. 6 Baylor, at No. 18 Oklahoma and against Washington at the Cactus Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
Rudolph’s final stats were pretty salty given the competition – 49 of 86 passing for 853 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions in three games.
Particularly noteworthy was his pass efficiency rating of 154.01. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, who was Big 12 offensive player of the year, had a rating of 145.85 last season and he’s considered one of this year’s front-runners for the Heisman Trophy.
During an ESPN podcast Wednesday, Gundy was asked if burning Rudolph’s redshirt in Week 11 was the right thing to do.
“Sure, we have a responsibility,” Gundy said. “There are 130 guys on our team and there are 70 that travel to that game, we were playing on the road against Baylor. The Sunday before the game, we have a week of preparation. The other players need to know that we’re making a full commitment to try to win the game. At that point, we were down to really our third quarterback. The fourth guy was a true freshman walk-on quarterback. So, it wouldn’t be fair to put him in the game and our team knew that Mason gave us the best chance to win.
“So, I guess the long and short of it is, how would you be able to ask those young men to commit to working hard this week and get a chance to win if they know you’re not putting the best player out there that gives them a chance for success?”
Did Gundy think Rudolph was ready to play the Sunday prior to facing Baylor?
“No. I didn’t think he was ready, because if so, I would have played him,” Gundy told ESPN. “But he understood the offense, he hadn’t taken hits. His throws were good, not great, because he was a freshman. But now looking back, he was better than what I thought he was and that question has come up a lot. I admitted it. He played better than I thought he would.”
Hindsight is 20/20, but which would Gundy consider a bigger regret: Attempting to redshirt Rudolph from the outset, or not pulling the trigger by playing Rudolph earlier in the season?
“Well, now I wish I had another year with him,” Gundy said Tuesday during Big 12 Media Day at the Omni Dallas Hotel. “It’s really difficult to predict how redshirt years will take place, especially at the quarterback position. I think most teams across the country now feel very lucky to have two players at the quarterback position that they can put out there and feel comfortable and run the offense.”
The thought of Rudolph still having four years of eligibility undoubtedly would be an enviable position for Gundy, but had Rudolph’s redshirt status not been burned, there’s an extremely good chance the struggling Cowboys would be entering the 2015 season riding a six-game losing streak.
OSU also would have had its run of consecutive bowl appearances snapped at eight by finishing ineligible at 5-7 rather than reaching 7-6.
“In our situation last year, the way we handled Mason obviously was what we thought was best for our football team, and it worked out for us in the long run,” said Gundy, who ended his playing career at OSU as the Big Eight’s all-time leader in total yards and passing yards. “But you would always like to have the extra year. It certainly paid dividends for us to play him at the time that we put him in.”
A four-star recruit by Rivals, Rudolph turned down scholarship offers from LSU, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Mississippi and North Carolina to sign with OSU. He also was recruited by Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Duke and Vanderbilt.
Gundy attempted to redshirt Rudolph despite OSU having an Air Raid Spread offense similar to what Rudolph played while leading Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern to a Class 4A Division II state championship and the No. 7 national ranking in USA Today’s final high school poll in 2013.
In all likelihood, Gundy held out Rudolph for safety reasons. The Cowboys’ tattered offensive line would have struggled to protect their budding star.
J.W. Walsh began last season as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback, but suffered a foot injury against Missouri State in the second game and wound up having season-ending surgery.
Walsh was replaced by Garman, a redshirt junior who hadn’t seen game action since 2010 during his final year at Southlake Carroll High School in Texas. Garman redshirted his freshman season at Arizona, transferred to OSU, where he sat two more seasons.
Garman finished off the Missouri State win and led OSU to four straight victories against weak opponents (Texas-San Antonio, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas) before the Cowboys went into a four-game tailspin with convincing losses against TCU, West Virginia, Kansas State and Texas.
Garman suffered the concussion in a 28-7 loss against the Longhorns and that’s when Gundy decided to start Rudolph the following week in Waco, where the 6-foot-4, 220-pound freshman firmly stood his ground by completing 13 of 25 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against a team that was trying to nail down a spot in college football’s inaugural playoff.
Later it was learned Garman, who has since transferred to Maryland and immediately will be eligible as a graduate transfer, played with an undisclosed shoulder injury his final five games last year. Even with that, Gundy still chose to sit Rudolph.
After a bye week, Rudolph led what would turn out to be the second-largest fourth-quarter comeback victory in OSU history as the Cowboys overcame a 14-point deficit with less than five minutes left in regulation to post a 38-35 overtime victory over the Sooners.
The outcome qualified the 6-6 Cowboys to make their ninth straight bowl appearance, closing out the season with a 30-22 victory over Washington in the Cactus Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium.