STILLWATER, Okla. – During one hot and rainy weekend in early August, the signs are everywhere. Drive a few minutes into town and it is clear that Oklahoma State and the city it dominates have championships on the brain.
From the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college football preview issue featuring a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback; to the popular bar where every patron is wearing orange on at least one article of clothing; to the thousands of pictures of Pistol Pete, the school’s gun-toting, cowboy hat wearing mascot strewn around town at all times, the excitement of the season is at a fever pitch.
Ground Zero for this enthusiasm might be at Eskimo Joe’s, a local bar that sits less than a mile from campus and is filled with hardcore Oklahoma State fans. Close calls and special seasons—especially 1988, Barry Sanders’s final year, and 2011, when the Cowboys finished at No. 3—are the topic of conversation with less than two weeks before the season opener.
“Anything less than a championship is unacceptable,” says Chad Reed, an assistant manager at Eskimo Joe’s. “I expect a lot of points. We have a lot of weapons. I don’t think there is a trap game like Central Michigan. And we will win Bedlam. No excuses.”
That confident prediction is the most important one in this state split by its two football powers, but the annual Bedlam matchup with Oklahoma is on everyone’s mind even earlier than normal, with the possibility that the teams could meet a second time in the newly reinstituted Big 12 championship game.
Oklahoma has made a tradition and their business out of dominating the state, relegating Oklahoma State to historical stepchild status—the Cowboys have only won 18 times in 111 all-time meetings with the Sooners. This year, both teams enter a new season chasing the same lofty goals and committed to the same strategy Reed and the rest of the state expect: Score a lot of points, and hope the defenses hold on for dear life.
On both sides of the rivalry, offensive success in 2017 rests on the shoulders of high-profile duos that have become the faces of their respective programs.
In Norman, job No. 1 for new head coach Lincoln Riley is making sure that state and conference supremacy remain the status quo, and he has the nation’s most efficient quarterback from a season ago, Baker Mayfield, to help keep the Sooners’ offense on schedule.
Meanwhile, the faithful in Stillwater believe Mason Rudolph and James Washington could be the best quarterback-receiver connection in the country—and NFL scouts appear to agree. It all sets the stage for an arms race that could not only decide the Big 12 championship but also swing the Heisman and national title pictures.
While other programs with Oklahoma State’s checkered history of national relevance might shy away from lofty national expectations—even SI picked the Cowboys to go to the College Football Playoff—that’s not the case with this team. Not this season. Not a chance.
Those expectations are squarely put on the backs of the offense’s two senior leaders: Rudolph, who threw for 4,091 yards and finished with 28 touchdowns against just four interceptions last season, and his top target Washington, who posted his second straight double-digit touchdown season and ended up in the top 10 nationally with 1,380 receiving yards.
“All the outside hype and the kind of noise that’s going on, we’re not going to run from it,” Rudolph says. “Inevitably, it’s going to be around us and be subject to it. But I think it just adds fuel to the fire. I think we are a very confident group.”
Confidence permeates throughout the program, and it starts with rattlesnake-hunting, mullet-wearing head coach Mike Gundy, who says that Rudolph’s personality and grit has a major impact on his teammates.
“He’s changed considerably over the last couple years. What he did to get the team’s respect was early in his career, he played when he was hurt and when he was really injured,” Gundy said. “And at the quarterback position, the players respect that. So he got them on his side then when he would play injured and then he’s done it since then. He’s had a couple pretty significant injuries, and he’s played beyond the injury.”
Both Rudolph and Washington put off the NFL draft last spring and returned to Stillwater to handle unfinished business, namely winning a title and getting a degree. Rudolph is set to graduate in December with a degree in business marketing, while Washington is on track to become the first member of his family to graduate from college.
The relationship between a possible first-round draft pick and arguably the best wide receiver in America evolves according to the venue.
On topics that range from game tape observations to their preferred mode of transportation (Rudolph loaned Washington his scooter this summer), they talk, text and Snapchat all the time off the field—but they communicate very little on it.
The non-verbal communication between receiver and quarterback has to set the tone, because like most Big 12 teams, the Cowboys never huddle—not in practice, and certainly not in games. The adjustments that the two make are done with a simple gesture: a head nod.
“As far as routes go, we got a really good feel for leverage and coverage,” Rudolph said. “He knows coverages about as good I as do. So that makes it easy on me. With routes that convert to different coverages, he’s always on top of his game, so he knows when and how to adjust based on the defense.“
From there, Oklahoma State’s other targets are often left wide open because of how much respect secondaries give Washington.
For his part, Washington says he has tried to be more of a vocal leader this offseason, holding teammates accountable so that things like last year’s controversial last-second upset loss to Central Michigan don’t happen again. That’s not an easy adjustment for a three-star high school prospect out of Stamford, Texas (pop. 3,100), whose graduating class had only 41 other students in it.
“It’s going to take guys doing their job [to win a championship],” Washington says. “Guys watching film on their own. You just can’t do it at practice. You have to do other things in order to be good. I pride myself on that.”
Though Rudolph and Washington have had two years of record-breaking production, opposing defensive coordinators only now have a full sense of the damage the duo can do through the air.
The week after last season’s deflating loss to Central Michigan, Washington lit up Pittsburgh for nine catches and 296 yards, scoring two touchdowns in a 45–38 victory, including a 91-yard score on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Rudolph ended up throwing for 540 yards.
“It’s moments like that where we feel we are unstoppable,” says Washington. “But that’s not going to happen again without the preparation and the practice and the bond we have.”
When asked what it will take to get over the hump and to challenge for a conference title, both say if they don’t get it done, it’s no fault but their own. And both budding stars answer the question without mentioning the one team that epitomizes that hump, derailing them time and time again in late season matchups: Oklahoma.
Eighty miles south on Interstate 35 loom the Cowboys’ biggest rivals, who are harboring their own playoff aspirations despite an unexpectedly turbulent offseason.
At 33 years old, Riley is the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, taking the reins of the two-time defending Big 12 champions after Bob Stoops suddenly retired in June after 18 seasons in Norman.
Riley will continue to call plays for an offense that has finished in the top five in scoring in each of the two seasons since Oklahoma hired him away from East Carolina to overhaul an attack that had gone stale. His ability and willingness to delegate authority, widely accepted as a critical skill for successful head coaches, will be under a microscope in his first year.
“I am pretty hands-on by nature, but I found and still learn even more that I’ve got to, there is things you have to delegate,” Riley says. “I think my job is that I gotta be whatever the program needs me to be at a certain point. You have to be hands-on at times, you do have to delegate it. I think you gotta be the good cop, sometimes you gotta be the bad cop sometimes. You got to be a little bit of everything. I think that’s what I am going to try to do.”
The Sooners’ offense is being asked to replace some of the most productive players in school history, as running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and Bilentikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook all left for the NFL. Riley does have one offensive asset that few other teams can boast this year: a line that returns all five starters protecting a Heisman finalist in the pocket.
Riley recalls the first time he saw Mayfield on the practice field, a few months after he was hired in January 2015. Mayfield had been in the program for a year after transferring from Texas Tech.
“I am thinking, Man, this guy has big time talent,” Riley said.
Mayfield ultimately won a three-way battle for the quarterback job that year, beating out incumbent starter Trevor Knight and Cody Thomas. In the second week of the season, Oklahoma went on the road to face Tennessee, in front of 102,000 orange-clad fans at Neyland Stadium. At the half, the Sooners trailed by 14 points and had done nothing to that point to suggest they were capable of making things tight, let alone winning.
After talking to the entire offense at halftime, Riley pulled his struggling quarterback aside for a conversation that would change their relationship forever.
“ ‘You are here for a reason,’ ” Mayfield remembers Riley saying. “ ‘Forget everything that happened in the first half. Just execute and do your job.’ And that kind of relaxed me, gave me the confidence I needed, and it literally changed everything.”
Mayfield, who had completed only eight of his first 25 passes, led touchdown drives of 14 and 13 plays in the fourth quarter as the Sooners rallied to tie the game late and win 31–24 in double overtime.
Two years later, Riley says that Mayfield is in total control of the offense and looks forward to his quarterback’s biggest tests this season in road trips to Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
But Mayfield’s path to one last pursuit of a Heisman and a national championship has not been without its obstacles. Early on the morning of Feb. 25, he was arrested in Fayetteville, Ark., and charged with public intoxication, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and fleeing—dash cam video of the arrest showed police tackling Mayfield into a wall as he tried to run away. Mayfield was ordered to pay $300 in fines, $160 in court costs and $483.20 in restitution. He also had to complete 35 hours of community service and participate in a university alcohol-education course.
“I expect a lot out of him,” Riley said of Mayfield. “He was accountable for what he did and faced the situation like I expected him to.”
“It was tough to face my teammates [after the arrest],” Mayfield admits. “They might have expected for me to just come back and be that same person, but it was extremely tough for me because I knew I had let them down and disappointed them.”
Riley says that he grew even closer with his quarterback after dealing with his arrest. That will only help Mayfield’s cause when the NFL comes sniffing around next spring. As for the quarterback’s pro potential, Riley said Mayfield’s arm is one of the best he has ever seen.
“He is an NFL quarterback, there’s no mistake about it, and he’s an elite thrower,” Riley says. “You just watch the guy, the ability to change arm angles, to have the power he does, the touch and the accuracy and what I call the creative arm, to make the throws with people in your face, or have to throw three-quarters or sidearm, it’s impressive.”
“Yeah, I have a strong arm, but need to get the ball out my hands quicker,” Mayfield says. “I have a tendency to hold on to the ball because of my arm. It’s about being decisive and putting my offense in a great position. No negative plays and no sacks that could derail drives.”
Mayfield admits his style of play is built more for the backyard than an NFL playbook, but he isn’t shy about telling opponents exactly what he is going to do this season to ensure the Sooners get back to the playoffs. It’s a philosophy that should resonate well with Rudolph and Washington up in Stillwater, and with anyone else who expects a Sooner State representative in this year’s College Football Playoff.
“I am going to throw it deep.”