By JASON ELMQUIST
STILLWATER — With the exception of bowl games and occasional high school state championship games, the opportunity to play in an NFL stadium is rare for college football players.
But that doesn’t make it any less of a treat when the athletes get the chance to play a regular season contest in the confines of a professional arena. That’s what the Oklahoma State Cowboys get to do Saturday when they play Mississippi State at Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans.
“I can’t wait to play there. I’ve never played there,” OSU senior defensive tackle Calvin Barnett said. “I’ve only played in a dome a few times in my life. I can’t wait. I want to see how it really is.”
With so many players on the Cowboy roster hailing from the state of Texas, it is bound to be that some of them have had the opportunity to play in the NFL dome in Houston. Senior linebacker Shaun Lewis, a native of Missouri City, Texas, is one of those who have been fortunate enough to have already played in Reliant Stadium.
“I played in Reliant Stadium my junior year (of high school) for the state championship. It’s an awesome stadium, and I’m excited about it,” Lewis said.
OSU played at University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals, in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. For many players, the challenge will be to acclimate themselves with a stadium that can seat more than 71,000 fans, compared to Boone Pickens Stadium, which holds 60,000.
“Our coaches do a good job of helping us get adapted to the stadium and its surroundings,” Lewis said. “We’re at ease wherever we go, whether it’s somewhere we haven’t been before or Reliant Stadium, it doesn’t really matter.”
This game will be slightly different for Lewis, however. The Houston Texans recently revealed new video boards at either end of the field that are bigger than the video board hanging above the field at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas.
“As a defensive player we actually use that to our advantage, because they show replays and we can see where a play got away from us and just able to use that to see what happened and make corrections,” Lewis said. “We actually will be able to use it for good purposes.”
While the players are looking forward to stepping on the field at Reliant Stadium for a neutral game contest, OSU coach Mike Gundy doesn’t view it in a similar light.
“It’s a road game for us,” Gundy said. “There’s a big advantage of playing in this stadium (Boone Pickens Stadium) and we’re not playing here. So it’s basically a road game.”
Five things to watch in the Oklahoma State-Mississippi State matchup:
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TEMPO: Oklahoma State’s offense would like to move at a quick pace, spread the field and get this game into the 40s. Mississippi State would like to set a slower tempo and keep the game in the 20s. Whichever team can impose its will is much more likely to come out victorious.
EYES ON STEWART: Oklahoma State returns WR Josh Stewart, who led the Cowboys with 101 catches for 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012. He’ll try to feast on Mississippi State’s young secondary, which will have three new starters this season, including both cornerbacks.
A TWO QB SYSTEM THAT COULD WORK: Oklahoma State will likely use two quarterbacks against Mississippi State and both are good options. Senior Clint Chelf completed better than 60 percent of his passes for 1,588 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Sophomore J.W. Walsh was good too, completing about 67 percent of his throws for 1,564 yards and 13 TDs.
RUSSELL LEADS THE BULLDOGS: Mississippi State QB Tyler Russell could go down as the most prolific passer in school history with a good senior season. He threw for 2,897 yards last season, including 24 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, but struggled down the stretch as the Bulldogs lost five of six games.
MSU GOES WITH INEXPERIENCED SECONDARY: Mississippi State’s two best cornerbacks from a year ago — Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay — are now in the NFL. So the Bulldogs are now counting on young players like Jamerson Love and Tavese Calhoun to fill the considerable void. Coach Dan Mullen feels they’re ready for the challenge, but Oklahoma State is a difficult first test.
Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Oklahoma State, 2:35 p.m. (ABC)
Line: Oklahoma State by 12 1/2.
Series record: Tied 2-2.
Oklahoma State and Mississippi State open with an intriguing matchup on a neutral field at Reliant Stadium in Houston. The Cowboys are the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 after finishing last season with an 8-5 record. The Bulldogs have been to three straight bowl games for only the second time in school history and have won four straight season openers.
Oklahoma State’s passing game against Mississippi State’s secondary. The Cowboys will likely use two quarterbacks — senior Clint Chelf and sophomore J.W. Walsh — and both had success last season. The Bulldogs have three new starters in the secondary, including both cornerbacks.
Players to watch
Oklahoma State: WR Josh Stewart is back after a stellar 2012 season that included 101 receptions for 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s the Big 12’s leading returning receiver.
Mississippi State: QB Tyler Russell is already among the best quarterbacks in school history after throwing for 2,897 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2012. He needs less than 1,800 passing yards this season to become the school’s all-time leader.
Facts and figures
Oklahoma State is averaging 46.2 points per game over the past three seasons and ranked in the top three nationally each year. ... The Cowboys will have two new coordinators for the first time since 2005. Mike Yurcich will lead the offense and Glenn Spencer is in charge of the defense. ... Oklahoma State’s defense has forced 130 turnovers since 2009, which ranks second nationally. ... Mississippi State has won its four season openers under coach Dan Mullen by an average of 43.8 points. ... Mullen ranks fourth in Mississippi State history with 29 career wins. He needs eight more to tie Emory Bellard for third place.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.