THE CATCH Woods' game-winner against OU in 2001 turned OSU around
STILLWATER Rashaun Woods, crimson-clad defender on his hip, leaped, fingers stretched in a strain to grasp a pass that would sway Oklahoma State's 2001 season.
And its future.
The touchdown catch, securing OSU's 16-13 win over No. 4-ranked Oklahoma, provided the needy program with momentum. And belief. And confidence.
Now the Cowboys bid to contend in the Big 12 Conference, even speaking of "championships," many believe because of one fateful play Woods' game-winning grab two falls ago.
"When Rashaun made that catch, that was the game-winner against OU, a top-five team in the country, in position to play for a national championship," said OSU offensive coordinator Mike Gundy, responsible for sending in the play on that November day. "He did it on national television. And he did it with two defenders in great position to make a play. But he made the play.
"If they break that pass up and we don't score, it just goes down as another close call for OSU. And another missed opportunity."
OSU's football history is marked by failed dances with destiny. Gundy has lived it as player and coach. Every member of that 2001 team had experienced it that year, if not before as part of any of three straight seasons of misadventure during the decline of former coach Bob Simmons.
This time, however, Woods and the Cowboys seized opportunity. And the windfall carries on.
"After that, there were so many accolades from that game and a pride that developed in our team," Gundy said. "And it carried over to last season."
Says Cowboys coach Les Miles: "It changed our entire off-season, our entire outlook and our enjoyment of this last year. It really set up everything."
Momentum actually appeared lost when OSU surrendered a big lead to lose last year's opener to Louisiana Tech. Five games later, the Cowboys were 2-4 at the season's midway point.
Yet, momentum wasn't lost at all, only briefly misplaced, recognized when the team pressed on to a breakthrough that produced six wins in the final seven games.
Big wins, too. Over Nebraska. And Texas A&M. And the Sooners, again. And a bowl win over Southern Mississippi.
OSU finished 8-5 behind a slew of emerging story lines that ranged from breakout seasons for quarterback Josh Fields and tailback Tatum Bell, a productive patchwork offensive line, the rise of Kevin Williams as a dominant defender and an infusion of speed and talent from a number of first-year players.
Still, at the center of it all was Woods. He stormed to a record-setting season, himself riding the momentum of the catch he claims is his favorite among 216 career receptions, 27 of which have gone for touchdowns.
"All the time you say, 'I know I can go out and do that,' but until you do it, it's not the same," said Woods. "Things I did my junior year were a lot harder for me to do my sophomore year, because I had to actually do it.
"But once I did it, there was a whole new confidence about myself unlocked. That catch is a perfect example of that."
The image of that catch, with Woods clutching the ball over OU cornerback Derrick Strait, has been enlarged and hangs framed as a centerpiece in the living room of his parents' home in Oklahoma City.
"I've run that catch back many times in my head," Woods said. "Just thought about it, how big it was for the program.
"Coach Gundy's right. It was big. Really big."
That catch tops Gundy's list, too, as much for implication as artistry.
"You see it in sports," said Gundy. "If he drops that ball and let's say we don't score, then that game goes down as just another game for Oklahoma State. We didn't get it done.
"But he did make the catch. There were two people in great position to make the play. He turned his back on (Strait) and made the catch and stayed in bounds. It goes on record as the guy had good coverage.
"But Rashaun got it done for Oklahoma State football. That's why it's my favorite catch."
What might have happened to the Cowboys if Woods hadn't come down with that ball?
"I don't know where we'd be," said defensive end Greg Richmond. "I'm just so excited and glad Rashaun is on our team.
"It was a sweet victory for us, and it set the bar for the next year. What we did this past year will just help us keep climbing up the ladder."
Woods is back for more, which in itself is a nod to how much that catch against the Sooners meant.
After last season, Woods flirted with the idea of declaring early for the NFL Draft and skipping his senior season. But last year's taste of success, and an appetite for more, played a role in his return.
"Rashaun's one of the reasons, if not the main reason, for the turn in our program," Gundy said. "There was a lot of things for us getting to that point, but he made it happen in the end."
The Cowboys have gone from perennial losers to an 8-5 bowl champion capable of conquering an old nemesis to being ranked No. 24 in this season's preseason coaches' poll.
All that since the catch.
"If that was the start," Woods said. "Hey, I'm glad to be a part of it."
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