SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The TicketCity Cactus Bowl held its final press conference this morning in advance of Friday night’s game at Sun Devil Stadium (7:15 p.m. PT, ESPN). Here’s what Washington coach Chris Petersen and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy had to say:
Petersen: Good morning. Happy New Year.
Well, we’re a little bit redundant from what I said yesterday. We’re excited to be here. We’ve had good preparations. I think the kids have worked really hard, stayed very focused. I think the big thing now is just how that translates to tomorrow night. You know, just such a long time off.
I thought our kids were in a pretty good rhythm the last three, four weeks of our season in terms of preparing, improving, all those type of things.
I think you watch these bowl games, there’s certainly some adjustment periods. Seems like one of the teams really comes out fast, and the other team kind of gets on their heels, then both teams settle down and play football. So you’re concerned about that, that you can come out and kind of hit the ground running.
But we’re excited to play and glad this game is finally here.
When you come into a game like this in Oklahoma State’s case and you lose perhaps your best player (Tyreek Hill, dismissed from the program) in between the time the regular season ended and the bowl game, have you been in a situation before similar to that? What effect can that have on your team?
Petersen: You know, I have been in that situation. A few years ago we sent our best player home from a bowl game. That can even be more unsettling because it’s right before the game. But what I think, you know, kids adjust, they rally. You adapt and you play ball. Over time it seems like a team is a team, and they come together. You certainly hate when anything like that happens. It’s painful to go through. It’s disruptive, all those type of things. But we ended up winning the game. So I think that the kids can get it and adjust and they’ll be very focused on playing their best ball.
How close do you think you got to reaching what you thought your potential could be offensively this season?
Petersen: Well, I don’t know. Like I said, I think we made some good strides that last third of the season. I thought that’s kind of how we were hoping to play probably more early on. So, you know, I don’t know what the potential is. I still think we have more to us, more in us. I do think the last part of the season was certainly more enjoyable for everybody on offense when you feel like you’re getting better. I mean, I kind of said this way back when. As a coach, the kids as well, what I really want to feel like is like you’re playing at a high level/improving. If you can do those things, you feel good about what’s going on. I think we felt like that the latter part of the season.
What were the biggest areas of growth for Cyler Miles? The pocket presence, is that one area you felt he got more comfortable?
Petersen: I think he was a little bit better in the pocket. I think he anticipated and saw some things a little bit cleaner and a little bit faster. I think when you’re moving some tape, practice, whatever, it’s that anticipation. It’s like you just got to trust those holes a little bit more, throw it in there on time. That’s really a hard thing. It’s really the difference between somebody playing good defense and you playing better offense.
I think you could see some of that over these bowl games. You saw some of it yesterday, guys sliding in the pocket, getting the ball out on time, fitting it into tight windows. That’s the thing that I think he got a little bit better at. That’s the whole deal of playing quarterback in terms of being great in the pocket, throwing with anticipation/decision making, however you want to say that. I think he made some strides there.
Looking at the other side of the ball, it’s very rare to get three All Americans off a team in any year. But to get three on one side of the ball, could you foresee that before the season started?
Petersen: No. And I think it’s kind of interesting how sometimes I think all those things are so political sometimes. I think there’s a lot of kids that deserve awards that don’t get ’em, don’t get the recognition. All of us coaches have been doing this for a long time. You’re thinking, Huh? How did he not become this first team All American? I think one thing is, there’s just a lot of good players out there. I think Hau’oli coming back, had a lot of sacks last year, so there were a lot of eyes on him. And if a guy has a lot of eyes on him and can produce, good things will happen in terms of recognition.
I think the same thing for Shaq Thompson. He’s such a unique athlete. He produced and made some plays on defense. Then when we got in trouble at runningback injury wise, we were able to kick him over there. He did some good things for a couple games, again all eyes on him, he produced.
The guy that I’m happy for as well is Danny Shelton. Those nose guards, interior D line men, can be overshadowed. Like you’re talking about, you get a couple other guys that are getting a lot of notoriety, sometimes we can’t give him too much because they already got a couple guys.
I think Danny has played as well as anybody around. He’s just done such a great job inside. Usually those guys are eating up blocks, letting the other guys make plays. He’s done that, but he’s also made some plays for himself. It is unique and rare. I think there are some other guys out there that are equally deserving, but it’s great for those guys to get that recognition.
How much will the result of this game go into your evaluation of the season? Do you believe it can provide momentum going into the off season? Is the progress you made progress win or lose?
Petersen: I think so. I think every coach feels that about a bowl game, the last game of a season. I think that last game is so important, I really do. That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about the College Football Playoff. You get those four teams in there, two of them are going to be going out here, and that’s just such a sour taste in your mouth, even though what a tremendous season for those guys. To be able to win your last game, even if you’re not going to a bowl game, means a little something. Certainly if you are going to a bowl game, to get that last one I think is really important to everybody.
Can you compare anybody that Oklahoma State reminds you of that you have played in non league or the Pac-12?
Petersen: I think everybody is so unique. Everybody has their own styles. We’ve seen these plays, after playing as many games as we’ve played, we’ve seen these fronts and blitzes. But everybody has their unique packages. We’ve seen movement, all those type of things, that Oklahoma State does. But they kind of hone it down to make it their own unique style. Then, of course, everybody has their little twists for bowl games with having time on their hands. So I don’t think there’s any one team I say, This is just like these guys. Certainly like Oklahoma State is seeing us. There’s nothing we do that they haven’t seen before. It’s just a matter of getting your guys to play your style better than the other guys.
Is there any way to explain why a team like TCU comes out so great yesterday, meanwhile Oklahoma was so flat the day before? Any way to explain why that happens in bowl games?
Petersen: Yeah, I don’t know. I think all coaches wish they had the magic formula to that deal. But I think TCU, Gary, what a great job. You could go two ways on that. TCU, everybody knows how good they were this year. A lot of talk they should be in that tournament, and weren’t. They don’t get in. You can kind of lose a little bit of steam or you can go the way they did, rise up, have a chip on your shoulder, say, Let’s go show everybody. They did an awesome job. But I don’t know how you get that mindset. I mean, I know every coach, that’s what you want. But to get it done is another issue.
Chris, being that this game is played on New Year’s Eve, did you give your guys a talk about last night to block out outside?
Petersen: Really, that night wasn’t any different than the last whatever nights we’ve been here. It’s always a fine line when you’re at bowl games, you really want the kids to enjoy this process. The seasons are so hard. They’ve worked so hard on both sides to get here, to whatever bowl game you’re going to. So you really want this to be a special occasion, a reward. But you got to keep it in perspective. You’re still here to play a game and to play your best. If you have other things in mind, you’re not going to play your best. The talk really wasn’t any different than it’s been from day one, certainly before we got here, to now.
You look at certain games going in. You guys have this philosophy of opening it up, you’ll do whatever it takes offensively. You’ve done that in Arizona before. Is that something you did all year, meaning trick play, risks, gambles?
Petersen: I mean, you’re always just trying to figure out how to move the ball is really what it is. If you think something like that will work, you do it. You know, I think everybody in bowl games has these trick plays. You see everybody doing them. It’s not unique to I think any one person. I think what you’re just trying to do is figure out how to move the ball. Really when it comes down to it, your base package is 99% of the time, you know, offense running a trick play or two, the rest is just what you do. Our defense as well, we got to play with great eyes, be on point, know that they’re going to try some of that.
Just to follow up on the other day, we continued to have a great week. Proud of our players and our preparation, hospitality, volunteers, everything that has to do with the TicketCity Cactus Bowl. It’s been terrific as always.
We’re all excited about the game. We had final preparations today, good night’s rest, a few walk throughs tomorrow, then get ready to play in the game.
How reinvigorated has your team been, through the bowl practices? Is this a completely different team attitude wise than you’ve had in the last couple months?
Gundy: It’s been very positive. We’ve had now 12, 13, 14, somewhere in that area, really good practices. I mentioned at the last press conference that spring ball for us is not much more than that. Spring game, you have two practices in the spring where you don’t have pads on. We’ve really had another spring ball.
It’s been terrific for our players. Their energy and their attitude, not just the players, but the staff, people in the community, on campus, has been really good. It was a huge lift for our team and our school, I think all the people involved at Oklahoma State. Sometimes you get comfortable. In fact, James Castleman yesterday in the Media Day said, We just kind of thought we were going to go to a bowl because we go to bowls. They realize, No, you have to buckle down, keep working. You have such a young team. For 40% of your team to learn that lesson right now that they hopefully will maintain the rest of their career, what does that mean for you as a coach?
Gundy: The 40% that you’re referring to, in the other years we’ve been to bowls, it’s been 70% of our players that had some experience of playing in a bowl game, Christmas vacation, showing up, being mature enough to handle a fun environment like Arizona.
This year it’s just 40% of our players. It’s important they understand the commitment in order to get to post season play. But they’ve really matured over the last month, as I was talking about earlier. It’s been really good for our football team. Castleman, the veteran, mature players, I think there was a time they may have relaxed. I also know that playing 21 freshmen or true freshmen contributed to some of that. Just the leadership and the internal strength of our team, based on the players that have that experience, is so important.
You know, I mentioned this after last year’s bowl game, that when we essentially had 33 players that left that were on our travel roster for the bowl last season, I knew it would be a challenge to get some of the new guys going. But hopefully they’ve gotten to that point and had a good three weeks of practice.
What do you remember about the recruiting of Jaydon Mickens? Did you have a shot to land him?
Gundy: I wouldn’t have flown out to L.A. unless I thought I had a shot. Oklahoma State lives in Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas for the most part. There will be three or four players a year in the state of Oklahoma that we offer, two or three in the state of Kansas. There’s on overage 355 Division I players in the state of Texas.
For us to fly to California means that we feel like we have a good chance. His recruiting was a little different. I identified him late for that reason. But showed a lot of interest. Had good conversations. I really enjoyed him as a person, his personality. He and I had several really good phone conversations. But ultimately in the end couldn’t get off the West Coast. But we sure would have liked to have had him. He’s been a good football player.
A lot has been said lately about Mason Rudolph, what he’s done for your offense. Is your defense kind of unsung? Talk about your defense. Have they really kind of held the club together in a lot of instances when you needed it?
Gundy: You know, we’ve talked about this throughout the year. Our football team played over our heads in the first game against Florida State. Had a chance to win the game in the last three and a half minutes. Came up a little short. Then we lost our starting quarterback. We went through a stretch where we were able to win a number of games in a row. During that time, our defense played really well. Our offense was very average for multiple reasons. Then we went through a tough stretch where we didn’t win any football games. We were just very, very below average on offense.
So it was really hard to get a feel for where we were at as a defense, because we lost so many players from last year. I think at times our defense played good, and I think at times they played very average. That’s why I’m really excited about seeing the guys play in this game, just to kind of see where we’re at.
We’re playing a very well coached football team, we all know that, with Coach Petersen’s history. It’s a good challenge for not only our players, but our staff, the history they have.
As coach mentioned the other day, you weren’t there, but we had a coaches’ wives meeting. They watch a lot of tape. They study a lot of film, pride themselves on giving their players an opportunity to win. That’s what we do at Oklahoma State. Very similar backgrounds. Tradition wise, we may have not had the same players as some of the schools we competed against.
I say all that to say during the middle of the season it was kind of hard to find out where we were on defense because we struggled so much on offense. Had so many negative plays, the defense was on the field the entire game. They certainly made some good plays for us in the second half of the Oklahoma game and gave us a chance to win.
Mike, is there any way to explain why TCU comes out and plays great in their bowl, but Texas and Oklahoma come out flat in their bowl games? Any way to explain that big layoff, how a team’s going to react to that in a bowl game?
Gundy: I wish that we could come up with an answer and patent it and put it in a bottle and sell it. As popular as college football has gotten nowadays, we could sure do good.
I don’t understand. I think the mental approach, the attitude of players has much more of an impact on these games than it ever has, for a lot of reasons. Young men still want discipline, structure, they want to be told what to do. There’s so many other things going on in the world that at times it’s hard to get them to focus.
When the season was over, I thought there was two teams in our league that deserved to be in the Playoffs. I thought it was TCU and Baylor. I was one of the voters. I voted TCU number one. Several people gave me a hard time about that.
I noticed when I looked in the paper, had that 1 in parenthesis outside of there, I used to look at the poles forever and I used to think, Who’s that clown that voted somebody Number 1 that was eighth or ninth in the country. I figured it was a buddy of somebody who was the head coach at that school. So this year when somebody showed me that in the newspaper, I was wondering who that clown was, and I realized that clown was me. They certainly played very good. I think it was really good for our conference. I had another friend from the Oklahoma media ask me the other day about the importance of Big 12 teams in the bowls. Every game that we play is important at Oklahoma State for two reasons.
One, because we have a responsibility to each other, to the fans, to the people that love Oklahoma State football, to go out and compete and fight in every game. Two, we also have an obligation to our conference. But the fact is the two teams that need to play well in the national spotlight this year, based on the new playoff system, was TCU and Baylor, because they’re the ones that everybody talked about.
Three years ago was the first time that we were in the Fiesta Bowl, I think it was three years ago. We were the Big 12 Conference champions. When I looked back on it I felt an added pressure to perform for the league at that time. There’s so much put on these BCS playoff system teams and conferences, I think there’s added pressure on all of us to play well in our bowl games. But I’m guessing that Coach Briles and Coach Patterson felt more trying to carry the load of the Big 12 Conference, because they were the two schools right there on the edge of being in that system.
In regard to Washington’s pass rush people, do you feel like your offensive line has to have, by far, its best performance of the season tomorrow night?
Gundy: They certainly have to play very well. This group had tremendous success at rushing the quarterback and playing in the backfield, being very disruptive on the offenses that they’ve competed against. As the season’s gone on, from an outsider looking in, as Coach Petersen instills their coaching values in this group, you can see where they’re improving in those areas.
It will be very important for us to give Mason and the backs an opportunity to execute a play without somebody being in the backfield and being disruptive. Because we all know if they can get in the backfield and be disruptive, make runningbacks make cuts behind the line of scrimmage, force Mason to move out of the pocket before he can keep his eyes down the field, it’s difficult for an offense to have success.
I haven’t heard you say this publicly, but I’m sure you’ve talk about it. The bowl streak, now that you’re here and made it, how important was that? Wasn’t that truly important?
Gundy: It’s important during recruiting. The interest level of young men that we recruit changes every so often. People talk about wins. People talk about bowl streaks. Then you can go into a home with parents and a young man. They may not even know if you’re in a bowl. So sometimes it’s a factor, sometimes it’s not. In the middle of the season when we were struggling, I had one member of the media ask us how important it would be to get into a bowl for practice reasons. I thought I would kind of lighten up the room and I said, It really doesn’t matter. Nobody bought it. Everybody was so frustrated at us because we weren’t winning.
But the streak is important for us to have those practices, which we did over the last three weeks. Those 12 practices are very important for us to develop the younger players, the guys that we’ve talked about and you’ve talked about in the press, that are first year players. They were told two weeks ago that they’re now essentially second year players because they’ve got a season under their belt. But those practices are really important. I think it’s vital for us to continue to develop our program and work to get better.
Mike, even without playing, in what ways has J.W. Walsh continued to be a leader in your locker room and impact your team?
Gundy: J.W. is a special young man. It seemed like every time he’s just gotten started, he got injured. It’s a second episode for him. He works hard. He looks like a linebacker now he spent so much time in the weight room working on his upper body while his foot improves.
But we enjoy seeing him out there. He talks to the quarterbacks. We had to put him in the stands. He set in the tunnel at our home games because we were concerned about him being able to get away from a play that came off the sideline. I would anticipate that he would be able to stand on the sideline with the team during this game. So he understands defense. He understands our offense. He should be able to contribute, like he has, just being around our team. I mentioned this to you guys two or three years ago. He pushes everybody on the team because he works harder than anybody. He always had. His dad is a coach. He was raised in a coaching family. He has been an overachiever for a long time.
His role is very important to our team. We all have to have players that can make plays on Saturdays in order to have success. But there’s also a role for young men that want to be a part of a team and compete. There’s a trust factor. They’re tough. They understand the system. They love Oklahoma State football. He falls in that category. We’re looking forward to him getting healthy and competing again.
What does it say about your program and this collection of guys you have now, that the Tyreek Hill situation doesn’t seem to have had a devastating effect on your morale?
Gundy: One thing we try to instill in our players when they arrive on campus is that nobody owes them anything, entitlement is something that we don’t allow. There are certain things that we and they can control, and then there’s more things they’ll be faced with they can’t control. That factors into their overall development as a player and a student athlete and a person during their time at Oklahoma State.
The unfortunate situation for all parties involved with Tyreek is something that they can’t control. Our system and our core values at Oklahoma State are in place now, things that we believe in, maybe more so things I believe in, going into my 11th year. One area that we’ve made great strides over the last four or five years is, if you can play a part and control a situation, you certainly need to. If you can’t, then you need to move forward. That’s just an issue that they couldn’t control, so they moved forward.