TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) – Oklahoma State went through its most difficult season under coach Mike Gundy, losing five straight games before squeaking into a bowl game.
Once the Cowboys got to the Cactus Bowl, they rode a freshman quarterback and an offensively gifted defensive tackle to a spirit-lifting victory.
Mason Rudolph threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns, and 300-pound tackle James Castleman showed off his versatility with two big offensive plays lead Oklahoma State to a 30-22 victory over Washington in the Cactus Bowl Friday night.
“Our offense was resilient,” Gundy said. “I thought we blocked well, our running back ran hard, we made big catches and we turned James Castleman into a wide receiver.”
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Oklahoma State (7-6) needed a late rally over rival Oklahoma in the season finale to become bowl eligible and played the Cactus Bowl without its most dynamic offensive player.
The Cowboys closed out the season with a flourish behind Rudolph, with some help from Castleman.
A freshman making his third start, Rudolph kept his composure against Washington’s vaunted front seven, overcoming three turnovers to hit 17 of 26 passes.
Desmond Roland kept the Huskies off balance by tearing off big runs up the middle, finishing with 123 yards on 32 carries.
Then there was Castleman.
Though he had never played offense before, the beefy defensive tackle lined up in the shotgun to score on a 1-yard run in the first half, helping Oklahoma State build a 17-point halftime lead.
Washington rallied to within a touchdown in the second half, but Castleman wreaked havoc again, catching a pass out of the backfield and rumbling down the sideline for a 48-yard catch that all but killed the Huskies’ hopes.
“Honestly, I’m like, ‘Why hasn’t somebody hit me yet?’ ” Castleman said of his reception. “Next thing, I look up to the screen, I see someone coming and I try jabbing inside trying to get him to miss. Once he hit me, the check engine light came on.”
Washington (8-6) stumbled out of the gate on both sides of the ball in the first half in the first half before finding a rhythm on offense in the second.
The hole proved to be too deep, ending coach Chris Petersen’s first season with a loss.
John Ross scored on a 96-yard kickoff return and Cyler Miles threw for 268 yards and a touchdown, but had an interception on Washington’s last-ditch drive.
“If we would have come out ready, it would have been a different outcome,” said Huskies receiver Jaydon Mickens, who scored two touchdowns.
The Cowboys pulled off a last-minute comeback to earn a spot in the Cactus Bowl, scoring two touchdowns in the final 8 minutes to knock off Oklahoma in overtime.
Tyreek Hill had the big play in that game, scoring on a 92-yard punt return with 45 seconds left, but he was dismissed from the team last month after being arrested on charges of choking and punching his pregnant girlfriend.
That left Oklahoma State without its most dangerous threat against a Washington defense that has three first-team All-Americans.
The Cowboys didn’t seem to mind.
They had no trouble against Washington’s ferocious front seven on their opening drive, confidently converting a midfield fourth-and-1 to set up Castleman’s 1-yard dive off left tackle.
Rudolph turned it over on the next two drives, losing a fumble when he was sacked, then on a one-handed interception by Budda Baker.
The freshman kept his poise, though. He caught a pass from receiver Brandon Sheperd on a trick play to set up a 28-yard touchdown pass to James Washington, who one-upped Baker with a one-handed catch in the end zone.
The Sheperd-Rudolph connection worked again just before the half, this time in reverse: Rudolph on the throw, Sheperd on the catch for a 47-yard touchdown that put the Cowboys up 24-0.
Washington had just as much trouble on offense, finishing with 113 total yards in the half.
“The first half was, obviously, on offense, still in practice mode,” Petersen said.
The Huskies finally showed signs of life on their opening drive of the third quarter, cutting into Oklahoma State’s lead on Mickens’ 31-yard reverse.
Washington got a bad break when a punt hit one of its players and Oklahoma State recovered, but held the Cowboys to Ben Grogan’s 27-yard field goal. Ross took the ensuing kickoff up the middle, made a couple of jukes and raced off to a 96-yard touchdown that cut the Cowboys’ lead to 27-14.
Miles followed with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Mickens, trimming the lead to 30-2 with 3 1-2 minutes left.
The Cowboys then turned to Castleman again and he played the receiver role well, killing off precious seconds that helped the Cowboys finish a difficult season on a positive note.
“This was a great finish for this team,” Gundy said. They can thank their freshman quarterback and new – and big – offensive weapon.