Tulsa must fire on all cylinders to beat OSU on Saturday
Picture Oklahoma State strutting on to Tulsa’s home field like they own the place, with its coach with the unique hairstyle and paranoid tendencies leading the way.
Added to that are the confident Cowboy fans waving the wheat and laughing at the prospect that Tulsa could actually beat them.
That will be the case in the 2019 version of the game this Saturday. But it's also reminiscent of the 1982 version of the TU-OSU game when Jimmy Johnson led the Pokes into the only game he coached at Skelly Stadium.
The question for Tulsa fans is whether the Golden Hurricane can pull off an upset at renovated and redesigned H.A. Chapman Stadium similar to their 25-15 victory over OSU on a Sunday night on Sept. 19, 1982, which drew a crowd of 35,297 and was televised by TBS.
There are some definite similarities between the two games beyond the eccentric hairstyles of the head coaches, whether it be Mullet Man Mike Gundy or Jimmy Johnson’s hair-sprayed, never-out-of-place do.
Both OSU teams were coming off seven-win seasons, and coming off meaningless home victories over non D-1 teams. Both TU teams were 1-1 which included road losses to big name opponents where Tulsa’s offense was stymied.
In fact, the 1982 TU offensive performance for the eventual 10-1 Golden Hurricane in a 38-0 loss at Arkansas in the previous week was horrifying. It was unquestionably worse than in the 2019 season opener in Tulsa’s much-maligned 28-7 loss at Michigan State.
It has been a generation for TU fans since a Tulsa victory over OSU, with both wins coming at Skelly Stadium. TU last beat OSU 35-20 in a game that was nowhere near that close in front of a sellout crowd of 40,385 on Sept. 12, 1998. Prior to the 1982 game, Tulsa’s last win over OSU was a 61-14 drubbing on Halloween of 1964 in front of an overflow crowd of 23,731 (Skelly was expanded the next year).
Also, the gap in TU wins in both instances had a lot to do with the teams not playing very often in the intervening years. Between 1965 and 1981, OSU and TU played twice, home and home OSU wins in 1976 and 1977. Between 2000 and 2019, TU and OSU played four times, with only one of those games at TU.
That one game was the weather-delayed midnight start in 2011, where OSU had arguably its best ever team in a 59-33 OSU victory.
The good news for TU is that historically, when the games are played in Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane has a really good chance of winning, especially against mediocre OSU teams.
From 1982 to 1998, Tulsa was 6-2 at home while not winning a game at OSU. Lots of heartbreaking games in Stillwater, but TU pretty much owned OSU in Tulsa. Even the subpar TU teams of 1995 and 1998 prevailed.
The only other game Tulsa has played OSU at home since 1998 was in 2000, when new TU coach Keith Burns trash-talked the Cowboys and then lost his home opener 36-26.
Yes, those games were years ago, and the game has changed. Much more of a passing game now. The 1982 Golden Hurricane offense featured two future NFL running backs, Michael Gunter and Ken Lacy – starting in the same backfield. Remember the two-back offense?
Today’s TU offense still runs a lot. Shamari Brooks and T.K. Wilkerson combined to rush for 232 yards on 44 carries (Brooks 29-140, Wilkerson 15-92). Gunter rushed for 240 yards on just 16 carries in the 1982 home opener against bowl bound Air Force in a 35-17 victory. Against OSU in 1982, Gunter and Lacy combined for 165 yards on 25 carries (Gunter 13-85, Lacy 16-80).
But it is the number of passes than has increased dramatically. That, along with all the commercial breaks, has expanded the average time of a game around an hour.
Last week at San Jose State, Zach Smith completed 21 of 28 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, with Sam Crawford having a breakout game with nine catches for 137 yards. In 1982 against OSU, TU quarterback Skip Ast completed six of 14 passes for 114 yards, including three to Dallas Cowboys bound Kirk Phillips.
That total number of passes for Smith should go up when it plays better teams, like OSU, because running the ball becomes more difficult against decent defenses. Although OSU’s defense clearly is no juggernaut, it is easily better than San Jose State’s.
However, OSU’s defense is nowhere near the category of Michigan State’s, which has perhaps the best defense in the nation.
Over the last few seasons, OSU has had success by outscoring its opponents. Defense has usually not been a strength.
Even in Tulsa's last game at OSU in 2017, a very poor Tulsa offense on a 2-10 team scored 24 points. Unfortunately for the Golden Hurricane, OSU lit TU up for 59 points in an easy win for the Pokes.
What has changed for TU since then is that both its defense and offense figure to be much better. A remarkable improvement happened last year for the defense. And Smith looks like like a big improvement at quarterback.
Tulsa's defense figures to be the strength of the team. But how much can TU slow down a perennially powerful OSU offense?
For certain, freshman OSU quarterback Spencer Sanders, running back Chuba Hubbard, and receiver Tylan Wallace all look explosive. Sanders averages 226.5 yards passing per game, which isn't noteworthy, but his scrambling potential is the type of thing that drives defenses crazy.
Sanders has 160 yards on 25 carries for a 6.4 average in his first two games. Limiting his scrambling yards is essential for TU. Hubbard has rushed for 265 yards and a 7.8 yard average. Last season he rushed for 740 yards.
But the most dynamic of all is Wallace, who has 10 catches for 272 yards and five touchdowns. Last season, he had 86 catches for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns.
TU isn't likely to shut out OSU's offense in its wildest dreams. For TU to beat OSU, the Golden Hurricane must hold the Cowboys to around 30 points, which is realistic.
On offense, Smith must light up OSU's typically average defense for Tulsa to have a chance. This is certainly possible. If a bad Tulsa team can score 24 in 2017, a much better Tulsa offense could easily score in the 30's at home this time.
Smith is just now getting back into form where he produced some big yardage games while at Baylor. Waiting almost two years in-between starts has not been easy.
"Zach's improvement from game one to game two was clearly evident," said TU coach Philip Montgomery. "More than anything he hadn't played in a while, so we're still kind of knocking off some rust.
"I thought his leadership Saturday, just his demeanor on the sideline and the way he handled himself in the huddle, around the guys, was right where we want it to be."
Smith threw some absolute lasers to Crawford and mammoth tight end Denzel Carter (2-45, 1 TD). When receivers appeared to be covered, Smith's NFL caliber arm somehow got the ball exactly where it was needed.
That has to continue for Tulsa to have a chance. Tulsa must take advantage of its opportunities in order to pull off the upset. And make big plays.
Following the 1982 example would be a big help. Like blocking a field goal. Or the 79-yard completion from its own end zone to little used Keith Estes in the fourth quarter after stopping future Detroit Lion and Oklahoma Outlaw Ernest Anderson on a great goal line stand.
This early in the season, it is still way too early to tell how good either TU or OSU will be. OSU has proved nothing. Wins over really bad teams, like beating Oregon State 52-36, really doesn't mean a lot. Oregon State is 1-23 over its last 24 FBS games. Or even playing McNeese State. A complete yawner there.
Tulsa's win over a San Jose State team that was 1-11 in 2018 isn't eye-popping, either. But for both teams, they took care of business on the road on the west coast, which is never an easy thing. Neither win was necessarily a gimmie.
Question marks abound. The status of running back Corey Taylor is iffy. Wilkerson did a great job of spelling him last week. Also, Brooks left the game late after he tweaked an ankle. Will he be 100 percent? Brooks and Taylor should both be available to play on Saturday, but will TU have to play true freshman running back Chris Lovick?
"Offensively, we have to do a good job of controlling what we can control," Montgomery said. "Creating some explosive plays on our end. Maintaining the football in certain instances. Trying to keep their offense off the field."
It is a tremendous opportunity for TU to get Oklahoma State to play the game in Tulsa. Great things have happened in the series for TU in Tulsa. They can happen again.