- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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The last time Oklahoma State played a Missouri team ranked this high, it was hardly the Oklahoma State it is now.
Sure, the Cowboys already had mega-booster Boone Pickens’ money and facilities that would become the envy of the Big 12 were being erected.
But Oklahoma State hadn’t yet achieved the success on the field to back any of that up.
In Friday’s AT&T Cotton Bowl, the No. 13 Cowboys and eighth-ranked Tigers will meet in a rematch of old Big 12 rivals. And it was the trip to Missouri in 2008 that proved to be Oklahoma State’s turning point.
"It was a big win for our program," Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said.
When Gundy took over Oklahoma State in 2005, the program endured some growing pains. The Cowboys went 4-7 that first season. The following two years, Oklahoma State couldn’t get over the hump, either, settling for back-to-back 7-6 seasons.
But after an easy start to the 2008 schedule, the Pokes traveled to Missouri on Oct. 11 with a 5-0 record.
By then, the Tigers were well over the hump.
The Tigers climbed all the way to a No. 1 ranking in 2007, before falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. With Heisman finalist Chase Daniel and a host of other key players back, the Tigers were a title contender again in 2008. And when Oklahoma State came to town, Missouri was ranked third in the country.
“We didn’t really know what we had,” said Zac Robinson, Oklahoma State’s quarterback then and a member of Gundy’s first recruiting class.
What the Cowboys had was the first of many prolific offenses. Kendall Hunter would become an All-Big 12 running back. Dez Bryant was about to become a superstar wide receiver. The offense had other future pros such as tight end Brandon Pettigrew and left tackle Russell Okung.
And in Columbia, it finally came together.
Earlier that same day, top-ranked Oklahoma had lost to Texas. Second-ranked Alabama had the week off. The Tigers were primed to jump back into the No. 1 spot. Instead, it was Oklahoma State that would begin climbing the polls.
The Tigers had the nation’s second-highest scoring offense, and on their first possession, marched right down the field to open with a lead.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh great,'" Gundy recalled.
But after that, the Oklahoma State defense bucked up, and gave up only one more score the rest of the half, as the Cowboys went into halftime trailing just 10-7.
"Missouri's offense hadn't had a three-and-out all season," Robinson said. "Our defense really stepped up."
Then in the third quarter, the offense stepped up. And Hunter delivered the biggest play yet of the Gundy era.
A minute into the half, Hunter took a pitch from Robinson to the right, bounced off a tackler, then bounded 58 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
"After that, you could tell guys believed we were going to win that game," Robinson said. "It was a huge boost."
Twice, Robinson found wideout Damien Davis downfield for long touchdown bombs, as Oklahoma State jumped to a two-score lead before holding on, 28-23.
"It was a really big win for us on a big stage that gave our players some evidence we can do this," Gundy said. "You have to win one to make people think you can do it, and I think that was a big game for our university and for our program."
It gave the program just its second 6-0 start in 63 years. And the players the faith they could compete with the best in college football on the biggest stages.
"It was a big moment," said former receiver Bo Bowling, who hauled in two first-down grabs from Robinson that game. "Nobody really remembers that game now, but that win really catapulted the program. Really helped bring Oklahoma State to where it is now."
The Cowboys have come miles since that game.
Following the Missouri win, Oklahoma State jumped to eighth in the polls, and has been a fixture in the top 15 of the rankings ever since. After going 18-19 in Gundy’s first three seasons, Oklahoma State has compiled a record of 59-18 over his past six. That record includes many other big wins. The Cowboys defeated Oklahoma in 2011 for the school's first Big 12 championship. They have beaten Texas their past three trips to Austin.
Yet all of that success traces back to Missouri -- Gundy's first building-block win.
"When I look back at my career, there's no doubt that was the biggest game in terms of putting the program on the map," Robinson said. "Everyone realized after that we were a legitimate contender.
"It changed the program."
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney