As the Cowboys charter jet rumbled down the runway of Waco Regional Airport to take off into the rainy skies for the trip back to Stillwater there was a different feeling than there had been on recent returns following the 42-9 loss to TCU in Fort Worth and the trip back south after the 48-14 loss at Kansas State.
You boarded the plane and there wasn't a lot of cheerful conversation, but among the players there was life. They could look others and each other eye-to-eye. In the back of the plane where the coaches and support staff sit there were conversations. Not loud mind you, but reason to think it was okay to talk and even some discussion heard that with some improvement that Bedlam was a winnable proposition.
Other discussion was over the internet reports from Florida that Mike Gundy was using back channels to promote his interest in the Florida job (More on that in another story). But back to the Cowboys quarterback situation, hope is a strong emotion and the Cowboys cup is starting to refill.
"There is no question, overall, without watching it on tape it could have been the best game that we've played in six weeks," head coach Mike Gundy said to me back in the coach's dressing room underneath McLane Stadium. "People don't want to hear that but the team we played is a pretty good football team. He certainly competed and his first game was on the road against one of the best teams in the country and from a competition and effort standpoint I thought he was really good."
Twice at the start of the game the Cowboys were pushed down by seventh-ranked Baylor. On the second play of the game Cowboys corner Kevin Peterson misplayed a long Bryce Petty throw and the Baylor quarterback and his target, Jay Lee, had a 65-yard touchdown pass.
Then after a three-and-out to start for Rudolph as he missed on a third-down pass to David Glidden, Baylor came back and Petty threw and Corey Coleman beat freshman Ramon Richards on a vertical and the 54-yard touchdown made it 14-0.
Mason Rudolph didn't flinch, and two possessions later he and the offense took advantage of a Richards' interception as the freshman cornerback that was a high school quarterback showed his resolve and ability to bounce back.
Rudolph, on a third-and-five, threw the first pass that Cowboys fans should remember he threw as he hit in stride Glidden on a corner route to the Baylor five. A few runs and a Baylor pass interference penalty later and Desmond Roland powered in for a one-yard touchdown.
The Mason Rudolph era was born.
"It's key for a guy in his first start that the receivers and the offensive line go out and get him in rhythm," Glidden said of that first catch and the early possessions. "It's a big comfort for him. That is what we were trying to do. He came on and he gave his confidence. He stood in there and threw the ball well. It was a great effort, overall, for the guys."
Mike Gundy is not perfect. He's a football coach, and right now, one that is not a media darling. Either way, on this decision to pull Rudolph's redshirt, he was going to come out on the losing end with most media.
The losing end with 20/20 hindsight is why didn't Rudolph play before Saturday night? The truth of the matter, as far as I see it and that is with my own two eyes having watched almost every practice, is that the big 6-4 plus, 225-pound freshman from Rock Hill (Northwestern), S.C. really did not click in until about a month ago.
During camp and into the season early when J.W. Walsh was injured in the first game, Rudolph was still becoming comfortable with everything from the offense to the daily routine of college and college football. Sure, he had arrived in the spring and been there all summer but that was a whirlwind, like it most often is, for the early arrivers from high school.
Besides, Gundy and the coaching staff had designs on redshirting the young man, knowing how good he might be immediately wasn't even close to how good he would be as a fifth-year senior signal caller.
Rudolph's hope came in that first major completion to Glidden. It came throughout as Rudolph hung tough with the Baylor pass rush. He took hits and got up, he moved around and avoided being tackled, showed his ability to process downfield with his eyes and his mind and the throw to a target all while on the run.
He hit Glidden with the seconds ticking off at the end of the first half for a touchdown. He threw the long ball with the 68-yard touchdown pass on the deep post to fellow freshman James Washington.
On two critical second half throws to move the chains and get in scoring position he threw the ball on the sideline to Brandon Sheperd, playing with a lot of back pain and over the middle to Washington, where both players could get up and get the ball over defenders, even if they were guilty of interfering as Xavien Howard was on the completion that helped set up the Cowboys touchdown to make it 42-28 in the fourth quarter.
Rudolph made mistakes. He threw a fade up short on the Cowboys sideline that was picked off way too easy. Then after the Sheperd completion for 32 yards as the Cowboys were driving to try to make it a one score game in the fourth, he locked in too long on Washington and Baylor's Orion Stewart read the throw and ran through the receiver for the interception. Knocked down after the throw, Rudolph got up and made a physical tackle on Stewart.
Yes, Rudolph made the tackle and didn't seem to think anything of it. Throughout the game Rudolph operated not like a freshman starting his first game in the rain and in a very hostile stadium against a powerhouse opponent but like he'd been there before and relished the chance to pull off a big win.
The stage never looked too big for Rudolph. He didn't know it, but his parents flew all day from South Carolina to get to Waco. Brent and Jamie Rudolph know what there son is made of. They knew the stage wouldn't be too big or the moment to much and they were going to be there to see it and share it. Thankfully, all Cowboy fans were able to see it and share it.
You can complain and gripe that the redshirt may have wasted a year. You never know what might happen. You hope it doesn't but that redshirt year could come in handy later.
You can moan and groan that Rudolph should have been playing back in September, but that's over and done with. The great thing now is there is hope, and honestly, after at least the previous two games, losses to K-State and Texas, there was little or none.
"No doubt, every game there are positives that you want to take out of a game," Glidden agreed. "I think this is a game that we can build on and hopefully, go play that next one and extend the season."