STILLWATER — The Cowboys have been dealt nine losses in their last 17 games, but Mike Gundy insisted during a lively news conference Monday that his Oklahoma State football program is healthy and guaranteed that quarterback Spencer Sanders “will get better each week.”

Staggered by five Sanders turnovers during a 45-35 loss at Texas Tech, and by three more Sanders turnovers during a 45-27 homecoming setback against Baylor, Oklahoma State is a 10-point underdog at Iowa State this week.

Since a 3-0 start, the Cowboys have been beaten in three of their past four games.

Oklahoma State is 99th nationally in total defense. For the season overall, the Cowboys are minus-9 on turnovers. Among Power Five programs, only woeful Rutgers has a worse turnover margin.

Meanwhile, during Iowa State’s three-game win streak, the Cyclones defeated TCU by 25 points, defeated West Virginia by 24 and defeated Texas Tech by 10.

Among the avalanche of Baylor-OSU reaction tweets, two of the more attention-commanding posts were from an Oklahoma City radio guy: Gundy is “being outworked by the rest of the Big 12.” And, “in a league with elite coaches, (OSU’s) ship is sinking.”

Gundy claims that he ignores social media, but on Monday he seemed to take aim at any suggestion that he’s been outworked by opposing coaches. He says he crawled into bed at 11:30 Saturday night and was awake less than four hours later.

“I take double Ambien (insomnia medicine). It didn’t work,” Gundy reported. “I woke up at 3:17 and came to work at 3:45 Sunday morning. So it’s not like I don’t notice and it’s not like I don’t understand people’s frustration.

“But we also live in a society today where people want to bitch and complain about everything, instead of putting their pants on and go fix it. We’re going to fix it. Nobody around here is going to bitch and complain. That’s the way it works. That’s the way it will get better. But I certainly understand why (fans are concerned).”

There are clearly defined differences between a slumping team and a broken program.

The Arkansas program is broken. OSU’s is not broken, but, over the course of these past 17 games, this is the worst Cowboy slump in 12 years.

While Gundy coolly predicted he’ll pull OSU out of this depression, I see signs that he has shifted into must-win crisis mode. He was extremely animated and energized on Monday.

If OSU loses this week, the Cowboys over the last two years would be 0-6 vs. Iowa State, Texas Tech and Baylor. In 2009-17, Gundy was 21-5 against those programs.

At Iowa State, OSU is doomed unless it gets better ball security from Sanders and significantly better defense than was on display against Baylor.

For now, Gundy doesn’t seem the least bit tempted to bench the redshirt freshman Sanders in favor of senior backup Dru Brown.

“(Sanders) will get better each week. I guarantee you,” Gundy said. “(Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson) knows what he’s doing. He will get him better, and Spencer is a very prideful young man.

“The only issue he has is thinking he can play a perfect game. He’ll accept responsibility. He’ll tell you it’s his fault. But he wants to play a perfect game. That’s not going to happen.”

Gundy acknowledges that his long hairstyle has become marketable, both personally and for the program. He even got a 2017 offseason SportsCenter exposure, during which he discussed hair-care products with ESPN’s mullet-wearing Barry Melrose.

The Gundy profile became enhanced not because of the hair and personality, but because of the combination of the hair, the personality and winning.

The winning part is the essential part.

If Oklahoma State follows last year’s 7-6 result with another 7-6 type of result, and follows in 2020 with something comparable, Gundy’s media profile would shrink.

Of more importance, a prolonged extension of this downturn would tarnish his position in Cowboy football history.

So, when there are tweeted allegations that the Cowboy coach isn’t as driven as he was a few years ago, I just don’t buy it. OSU has a variety of issues, but head-coaching effort isn’t among them.

Now in his 29th season of Oklahoma State football, Gundy’s personal investment triples that of anyone else in school history. It’s unfathomable that he would be OK with a string of poor seasons before retirement.

Any reasonable fan would agree that in several regards, 2019 looked to be a rebuilding season. However, OSU’s success bar is set at a higher level than it used to be. Only two years ago, the Cowboys recorded their sixth 10-win season of this decade.

Just like it’s hard to become a winner, it’s hard to remain a winner.

That’s the Gundy assignment — to sustain OSU at a 10-win level. He’s the one who raised the bar in the first place.

Since his salary was raised to the $5 million mark, Oklahoma State is 11-9.

That record, plus eight turnovers in back-to-back Big 12 losses — those are cold shots of reality that knock a 52-year-old coach out of bed at 3:17 a.m.

Gundy knows that every ounce of the recovery responsibility falls on his shoulders. That’s the baggage he carries to Ames this weekend, and for the rest of the season and beyond.

Bill Haisten 918-581-8397

bill.haisten

@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @billhaisten

Sports Columnist

Bill joined the Tulsa World in 1990. Prior to having become a sports columnist in 2016, he was the only sports writer in Tulsa World history to have covered OU, OSU, the University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts sports on an everyday basis. Phone: 918-581-8397