Comeback victory extra special to Oklahoma State after trying week
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- If Texas A&M truly wants to be an SEC program, its fan base will respond to Saturday's meltdown against Oklahoma State with one word on Monday.
A good group cry on Paul Finebaum's Birmingham-based radio show is how real SEC fans would handle blowing a 17-point halftime lead in the first matchup of top 10 teams at Kyle Field since 1975. They'd call for the firing of coach Mike Sherman. They'd call for the firing of the Yell Leaders. They'd call for the firing of that loyal Collie, Reveille. But if those fans understood what happened to the team on the other sideline this past week, it might make more sense that the Cowboys went from wilted to wow during a 20-minute intermission and then stormed back for a 30-29 win.
We'll start with the guy who greeted Oklahoma State's defense when it entered the lockerroom at halftime. Co-defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer had already filled a board with critical info for his defenders to digest. The adjustments Spencer and co-defensive coordinator Bill Young wrote on that board helped the Cowboys go from allowing 301 yards in the first half to 170 in the second.
That may not sound like such a big deal, but anyone who ever loved someone will understand the herculean effort Spencer had to make to even care about a silly game. Last week, as the Cowboys waited for a lightning-delayed game at Tulsa to begin, Spencer was called back to Stillwater to be with his wife, Angela. She died that night after a long struggle with heart issues. Thursday, Spencer buried the mother of his children. Saturday, he coached.
During the week, Angela Spencer's death hung over the Cowboys. The coaches and players loved Miss Angela. They ached for Glenn Spencer and the couple's two boys, Luke and Abraham. No one -- coaches or players -- seemed to be able to snap into game preparation mode, which is perfectly understandable given the circumstances. "There wasn't much talk in our staff room," Gundy said of the Cowboys' early-week preparation. "There wasn't much with our team. I was concerned about that."
Though it pales in comparison to what Spencer and his family faced, Oklahoma State also had to deal with another distraction. Until late Wednesday night, it seemed like a very real possibility that the Cowboys would follow Oklahoma to the Pac-12. Though the Pac-12 ultimately opted not to expand and the Big 12 -- sort of -- came back together, talk of the potential conference switch permeated the bubble Gundy and his staff create for their players. "It was more noticeable this week," Gundy said. "You just can't go anywhere without people talking about it. In the office. Jogging around campus. At the bagel shop. You can't run from it."
During his team's chapel service Friday night, Gundy sensed a lifting of the fog. But as the Cowboys reached the nadir of a brutal first half with a third-and-43 on their own nine -- the result of a facemask penalty followed by two sacks -- Gundy had to wonder if his team had checked out mentally. "Third and 43," Gundy said. "We couldn't even punt that far."
When the Cowboys hit the locker room trailing 20-3, quarterback Brandon Weeden, who set school records Saturday for attempts (60), completions (47) and yards (438), reminded teammates that they trailed the Aggies 21-7 at halftime of last year's 38-35 win in Stillwater. The penalties and the missed assignments could be corrected. Other than that, Oklahoma State's offense didn't need to change a thing.
So the Cowboys blasted out of the locker room and marched 80 yards, running 11 plays in two minutes, 36 seconds. Jeremy Smith's 13-yard touchdown run provided the margin Gundy knew Oklahoma State needed to make Texas A&M sweat. "At some point," Gundy said, "you've got to get it within 10 points to put them under any pressure at all."
On defense, the Cowboys finally began to pressure Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who threw three second-half interceptions. It also didn't hurt Oklahoma State that Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman completely -- and inexplicably -- abandoned his running game. After Christine Michael gashed the Cowboys for 58 yards on five carries in the first half, he carried once for four yards in the second.
When Oklahoma State's hurry-up, no-huddle offense gets rolling, it makes its own gravy. A successful first-down play puts the defense on its heels. The defense has no time to regroup before the second play is run. By the third play, the defensive linemen are sucking wind, and the coaches are afraid to substitute because the offense is moving too fast. A properly run hurry-up works like a boulder rolling downhill, and the Oklahoma State boulder squashed the Aggies in the third quarter with 37 plays -- as many as the Cowboys ran in the entire first half -- for 275 yards and 21 points. Kyle Field, home of a swaying, chanting fan base that can scare the bejeezus out of a visiting team, went from rocked to shocked. It showed on the Aggies' sideline, too. "You've got to have a will and a want-to," Texas A&M cornerback Terrence Fredrick said. "Everyone didn't have that will and want-to."
The Aggies should have entered the fourth trailing by 11, but Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon did his best to keep Texas A&M close. As he neared the goal line for what should have been his second touchdown catch, Blackmon fumbled the ball into the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback that gave the Aggies the ball at the 20. Blackmon made no excuses after the game. Gundy said he didn't rip his star on the sideline because he figured the embarrassment probably would teach Blackmon a lesson. As Gundy returned to the locker room following his postgame interview, he encountered Blackmon in a hallway beneath the stadium. "I told them your knee knocked it out," Gundy joked. "No," Blackmon said, "I dropped it." Just before Gundy disappeared through a set of double-doors, he called back to Blackmon. "Next time, high and tight," Gundy said. "Right?"
If the statkeeper hadn't been so kind and counted it under the "Team" column, Blackmon's punishment would have come in the form of a 39-yard loss on the game's final play. Texas A&M found its spirit and drove for a late Jeff Fuller touchdown that cut Oklahoma State's lead to 30-27. After an Oklahoma State defensive stand, the Cowboys took three knees but still had to run one fourth-down play to drain the final five seconds from the clock. So Gundy ordered Blackmon to take the snap, turn around and sprint into his own end zone for a safety. Blackmon didn't drop the ball this time, crossing the goal line to cap one of his team's best wins with what -- on paper -- will look like its worst play.
Anticipating the win, Oklahoma State fans chanted "Big 12, Big 12," mocking the "S-E-C" chant that almost certainly would have erupted from the eastbound Aggies had the score been reversed. The show of conference loyalty was slightly hilarious considering the fact that Oklahoma State would have headed west in a heartbeat had the Pac-12 decided to take Oklahoma, but none of that mattered to the people on the field.
Afterward, the Cowboys hugged each other extra hard. This one meant more. This one was special. Cornerback Brodrick Brown, who intercepted Tannehill late in the third quarter, said the win was dedicated to the Spencer family. "It meant everything for us to win this for him and for his wife, who is no longer with us," Brown said. "Rest in peace. Miss Angela was special."
Gundy called it the biggest win of his coaching career. Given what his team endured during the week and given the hole it climbed from in Saturday's second half, it certainly was the hardest earned.
"Win or lose, I told them that the way they handled that situation was beautiful," Gundy said. "The win makes it special, but the way they fought back as a group shows a lot about their character and who they are."