MANHATTAN, Kan. — A barrage of injuries. A quarterback carousel. Two losses in September.
Not exactly the recipe for a season with legitimate conference title dreams.
And yet Oklahoma State is still here.
The No. 24 Cowboys control their destiny to repeat as Big 12 champions in November. And the difficult stretch run — four consecutive games against ranked teams — begins with perhaps the toughest challenge of all, Saturday's matchup in the Little Apple against a Kansas State squad that has ascended to No. 2 in the BCS standings and boasts the Heisman trophy favorite in Collin Klein.
“Two or three weeks ago, I don't know that very many people thought we would be sitting here where we are now going into Kansas State,” coach Mike Gundy said. “I think people thought that we'd probably lose one of these last couple games. But our players have continued to buy in.
“We've been able to get 11 guys to get out there and play and manufacture enough on offense and improve on defense. And the guys have played hard. That's really all you can ask (for).”
Before the calendar changed to October, OSU was 2-2 after a last-minute — and controversial — loss to Texas at Boone Pickens Stadium. The Cowboys had fallen out of the polls. They were playing with their backup quarterback, and the defense that had been touted as an improved unit was struggling to get off the field and keep opponents out of the end zone.
But since then, the Cowboys have won three consecutive contests, the past two in dominating fashion over Iowa State and TCU teams that were once ranked in the BCS top 25.
The offense has been patchwork at times, with several skill players still dinged up. But starting quarterback Wes Lunt returned from his knee/ankle injuries against the Horned Frogs and appeared to find his rhythm again in the second half. The defense was the catalyst behind all three wins, mixing conventional stops with the return of the takeaway, something OSU had lacked in the early season. And the Cowboys have snuck back into the BCS standings.
K-State, meanwhile, has ripped off eight consecutive wins, including victories in Norman, Morgantown and Ames and over No. 18 Texas Tech at home.
The Wildcats' current position is one the Cowboys know well. Almost exactly a year ago, OSU was 8-0 with a Heisman candidate at quarterback when K-State came to Stillwater and nearly knocked off the then-No. 3 Cowboys in one of the most entertaining games of the season.
Lose in Manhattan, and OSU's final four contests will almost surely be about bowl position rather than capturing a second consecutive conference crown. And the Cowboys know K-State's discipline and consistency will make it very tough to beat at home.
But Saturday night presents a unique opportunity for the Cowboys — to both play spoiler and continue their own march to another Big 12 title.
“We've got all the motivation we need coming into this game knowing we've got to knock off No. 2 like we got knocked off last year (at Iowa State),” linebacker Alex Elkins said. “We win this game, we're back in the front-running spot with a chance to win a conference championship.
“Aside from everything that's happened this year, this is definitely going to be a great opportunity to showcase our skills, and prove to everyone that we're here to stay.”