STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy can empathize with what Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman is experiencing this week.
Gundy once was a true freshman quarterback suddenly thrust into a starting role during the middle of a season after a disappointing loss, just as Freeman was after the Wildcats lost 17-3 to Baylor on Saturday.
Gundy, 20 years after making his starting debut for the team he now coaches _ a win over Illinois State, it should be noted _ doesn't want to speculate about how confident or nervous Freeman might be as he prepares to start for Kansas State (3-2, 0-1 Big 12 Conference) at home this Saturday against Oklahoma State (3-1, 0-0).
Gundy does recall that confidence wasn't an issue in 1986, when then Oklahoma State-coach Pat Jones tapped him to replace incumbent starter Ronnie Williams after the Cowboys lost to Houston.
``I didn't care if I was a freshman or not,'' Gundy recalled Monday during his weekly news conference, saying he believed enough in his abilities to lead the Cowboys to victory.
Kansas State coaches obviously have confidence in the 6-foot-6, 238-pound Freeman, or else they wouldn't have promoted him, Gundy said.
Kansas State won its first three games this season _ although one win came by one point against NCAA Division I-AA Illinois State _ with senior Dylan Meier at quarterback. But the Wildcats struggled mightily on offense during their last two games, against Louisville (a 24-6 loss) and Baylor. Freeman relieved Meier during the third quarter of both games.
Freeman, a highly recruited prospect from Kansas City, Mo., also played briefly in a blowout win over Florida Atlantic. He is 14-of-47 passing for 214 yards with four interceptions and no touchdowns.
``We're not looking back,'' Kansas State coach Ron Prince said following the loss to Baylor. ``We made the decision, and that's what we're going to live with.''
Gundy said conventional thinking would be that the Cowboys should take advantage of their experience on the defensive line and use extra pressure to try to rattle a freshman quarterback. But that might not be the wisest course of action, he said.
``I think you want to make any quarterback uncomfortable,'' Gundy said. ``But I think at times, if you do too much of that, you may put him into a situation that benefits him.'' If blitzes are used too much, ``it gives him an opportunity to know where to go with the ball quicker.''
Oklahoma State defensive players seemed mildly surprised Monday when told they'll be facing Freeman instead of Meier, but most said that Freeman's status as a freshman doesn't make much difference.
``If he's a true freshman and he's starting at a Big 12 school, he's a quality player,'' said linebacker Jeremy Nethon. ``I'm going to respect him.'' Added defensive end Marque Fountain: ``If they're starting him, he has some ability to play.''
The Cowboys said they're more focused on defensive basics than anything after surrendering 509 yards in their last game, a 34-25 loss at Houston on Sept. 23. Players and coaches noted that during an open week last week, practices were longer and more physical than usual.
``We were able to line up the starters against starters and have full-speed tackle drills,'' Gundy said. ``I enjoy that part of football. You don't get much of that any more at our level because you're trying to get ready to play each week and you get a little concerned about getting guys beat up, but we were able to do some of that last week.''
Kansas State's offensive struggles _ and Oklahoma State's desire to redeem itself defensively for its mistakes against Houston _ would seem to make the game a key one for the Cowboys' bowl hopes.
Win _ something Oklahoma State hasn't done at Kansas State since 1988 _ and do so again next week at Kansas, and Oklahoma State would have a 5-1 record entering a six-game gauntlet that includes matchups against three top-25 teams (Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma) and another on the cusp of the rankings (Texas Tech).
Lose, and enter the road game against the Jayhawks with two straight defeats and a significant lack of momentum.
``I don't think that there's any doubt that when you get in this part of the season that they're big games. Houston was a big game for us,'' Gundy said. ``But your players have to be in position by the coaching staff to make plays and then those guys have to step up. That's what it takes.''