PITTSBURGH — Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy has never tried to shelter his senior quarterback, Mason Rudolph, and he's not about to start. Rudolph is on his own in dealing with a wave of Heisman Trophy hype, in choosing to deflect or absorb praise as he pleases, even if it comes from his own coach.
After Rudolph's performance in the Cowboys' 59-21 win over Pittsburgh last Saturday, in which the senior quarterback threw for 497 yards and five touchdowns, Gundy likened Rudolph to "the Tom Brady of college football." Then he challenged Rudolph to tune it out.
"They'll name that street after you one day, and a couple days later, they'll run you right down it," Gundy said. "And he has to think that way and function in that world. I think he'll do fine."
Rudolph should be fine because he's become Oklahoma State's all-time leading passer without being coddled and insulated — and because he is operating a video-game offense with a loaded wide receiver corps, led by senior all-American James Washington.
It was not lost on Rudolph and Washington that their decimation of Pitt came at Heinz Field, an NFL stadium that was largely empty by halftime and was advertising free beverages to students who stayed to watch the duration of the rout.
Both players acknowledged the rising stakes of this weekend, when No. 6 Oklahoma State (3-0) will open Big 12 play at home against No. 16 TCU (3-0). But the Cowboys' historically good win over the Panthers put the pro prospects of Rudolph and Washington into deeper perspective and illuminated what they're trying to accomplish before they actually get there.
"We thought, we wanted to blow the top off this thing," Rudolph said of the ruthless efficiency of the offense, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in points per game (54), total yards per game (607), passing yards per game (407.3) and third-down conversion percentage (56.4).
Leading the way are the quarterback and his top wideout. In a 49-point first half against the Panthers, Rudolph passed for 423 yards, converted six third downs with completions and led seven consecutive touchdown drives, including scoring throws of 54, 69, 8, 40 and 48 yards. As Washington drew double teams and rolled coverages for most of the game, Oklahoma State had four players record at least 100 receiving yards, something no major college team had done in 12 years.
While all of that production may have been an indictment on Pitt's young secondary more than anything else, it also was a reflection of the maturity of a patient Washington, who still caught five passes for 124 yards to join junior Jalen McCleskey (162 yards, three touchdowns), senior Marcell Ateman (109 yards, one touchdown) and redshirt freshman Dillon Stoner (100 yards, one touchdown).
"At times like that, you can't be selfish. You have to run great routes and act like you're getting the ball, because it will open up other guys," said Washington, who has 13 catches for 387 yards and three touchdowns on the year and appears headed for his third consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. "When it's your chance to make a play, make a play."
Said Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich: "You never know who's going to get it. We don't force it."
If Rudolph were to be invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony in December, his 69-yard touchdown throw to Ateman in the first quarter — a cartoonish play in which he bounced off two defenders in the pocket, rolled backward to his left and squared up for a deep pass — will certainly be on the highlight reel.
Although the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Rudolph doesn't have the same mobility as fellow in-state Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield, whose crafty quarterbacking led Oklahoma to a statement win over Ohio State earlier this month, Rudolph has improved his upper-body strength and thus his ability to shed tacklers and extend plays.
"When he's the pocket, and he's comfortable with his environment, he's capable of doing things like that," Washington said, sounding much like Gundy in trying to describe Rudolph and how he occupies "his world."
For as colorful as Gundy was after the win over Pitt — he openly talked about a wide-variety of topics, including the quality and familiarity of TCU, which is averaging 49 points while allowing just 265 yards per game and has given up only five offensive touchdowns — he kept coming back to Rudolph.
The hype will only grow should the Cowboys continue their frenetic pace on offense and win Saturday against the Horned Frogs, which would build further momentum for the inevitable blockbuster matchup against the third-ranked Sooners on Nov. 4.
But after the dominant win over Pitt, Gundy again encouraged Rudolph to stay in his own little world both on and off the field; he can rely on the offensive system there. He has Washington there. He can shrug off the Heisman chatter there, even if his coach is participating.
"There's a lot of good players out there. The guy at Louisville [Lamar Jackson] is a heck of a player. Obviously the guy at UCLA [Josh Rosen] … he's a heck of a player," Gundy said, although those words came before both Jackson and Rosen suffered losses last Saturday.
"There's a whole bunch of them out there," he went on. "I like our guy, I like where he's at, I like what he does for Oklahoma State football."