By Andy Staples
September 05, 2009

On a Saturday of new beginnings for the Oklahoma State football program, one tradition seemed out of place. Every time the Cowboys made a first down, everyone in the Boone Pickens Stadium-record crowd cocked their arms in anticipation. As the P.A. announcer overdramatized the moving of the chains, every arm shot forward.

That tradition should die immediately.

Elite teams do not celebrate first downs. Elite teams celebrate touchdowns. And make no mistake, Oklahoma State is an elite team.

The Cowboys proved it Saturday with a 24-10 win against Georgia. Had someone blacked out the dateline section of the box score, an educated college football fan would have assumed the contest took place in October in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge or Gainesville. But it didn't. It played out in the heart of Big 12 country, in a stadium recently made palatial thanks to the largesse of a billionaire who earned a geology degree here in 1951, back when the school was called Oklahoma A&M.

When Saturday dawned, few could have imagined that Oklahoma could lose to BYU, that Sam Bradford could miss significant time or that Oklahoma State, the pesky little brother that has finally grown tall and strong, would beat an elite SEC program by dominating on defense. But it all happened.

So dream huge, Cowboys. You now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the members of college football's ruling class. First downs are fine. But imagine celebrating something bigger. Like a Big 12 title. Or a berth in the national title game. All those things are in your reach if -- and this is a big if -- you can handle the pressure.

Sugar daddy T. Boone Pickens and Cowboys coach Mike Gundy used giant novelty scissors to cut the ribbon early Saturday to rededicate the stadium that bears the energy magnate's name. It's a facility that has improved dramatically thanks to a nine-figure donation from Pickens. The seats in the team meeting room have leather so buttery-soft that Pottery Barn's most expensive chairs feel like sandpaper by comparison. Everything is all burnished wood and orange mood lighting, a far cry from the locker room first-year Cowboys defensive coordinator Bill Young occupied as a player here in the 1960s. "When it rained," Young said, "the water got so deep that you had to stand on the benches."

Young might have felt like the water was rising fast Saturday when Georgia took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards in five minutes for a touchdown, but he didn't show it. After the drive, defensive tackle Shane Jarka would later swear, Young was smiling. "It's just gave a sense of ease," Jarka said. Said Young: "I'm not sure I was smiling. I might have been biting my lip."

When Young opened his mouth, he calmly decreed what adjustments his unit would make when Georgia next got the ball. Linebackers would attack run plays from a slightly different angle. Safeties would support the run better. In the final 54 minutes, the Bulldogs would score three points and gain 177 yards. "Four years ago, everybody would have been in the tank," Gundy said. "I didn't see anybody flinch."

In the process, the defense would bail out a usually high-scoring offense that faltered against an SEC defense. Vicious, fumble-inducing hits set up a momentum-swinging field goal just before the half and the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys, poster boys in 2008 for the Big 12's score-first-and-play-defense-later mentality, shocked everyone including themselves by winning with sound defense. "The game," Gundy said, "was played much like what you would see in the SEC."

And that's why Oklahoma State is elite. Oklahoma and Texas, the Big 12's resident titans, have separated themselves from the rest of the league in recent years by combining a high-scoring offense with an aggressive, opportunistic defense. With the exception of Texas Tech in 2008, the other 10 teams have played shootouts against one another and gotten stuffed when they meet the Sooners and Longhorns. If Saturday is any indication, these Cowboys can separate themselves from the field because they can win with offense or defense. Georgia hamstrung Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant, but other than Oklahoma and Texas, no one in the Big 12 has the athletes to play defense the way the Bulldogs play defense.

With Bryant limited to three catches -- one of which was a glorious diving grab for a 46-yard touchdown that capped the Cowboys' only scoring drive longer than 32 yards -- it was up to unsung Cowboys such as Jarko and safety Lucien Antoine to help Oklahoma State prove it belongs in the top 10.

It was Antoine, a senior from Coral Springs, Fla., who tattooed Georgia tailback Carlton Thomas late in the first half, causing the ball to squirt free deep in Bulldogs territory. When the ball stopped bouncing, cornerback Terrance Anderson lay atop it. The ensuing Dan Bailey field goal gave the Cowboys their first lead at 10-7.

By the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs had grown desperate. Quarterback Joe Cox, whose flu didn't seem to bother him during Alabama's first-quarter march, couldn't seem to get the Bulldogs to move. Jarka beat his blocker and flung Cox to the turf. During Cox's descent, the ball flew away. Defensive end Nigel Nicholas dove on it. Four plays later, Robinson found Bryant for the 12-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach. Later, Young would note with pride that Jarka and Nicholas are both second-teamers.

That's right. Backups. Playing in the fourth quarter. Making the crucial play against an SEC team that has notched double-digit wins six of the past seven seasons. In the game many in Stillwater considered the most important in the program's history.

But was it the most important? Was it a program-changer, or has Oklahoma State's program evolved to the point that, in spite of the hype and the quality of the opponent, the Cowboys simply won a game they were supposed to win?

"Program changer? I think, overall, we're a little bit beyond that," Gundy said. "We've played some really good teams the last couple years, and we've either beaten them or stood toe-to-toe with them. I think we're starting to believe that we can play with anybody if we play our best game."

After the final whistle, Bryant raised his hands to the sky. Left tackle Russell Okung paid tribute to his Omega Psi Phi brothers with a dance that, hopefully, someone captured and memorialized on YouTube. In the west end zone, just a few yards from the facilities his nine-figure donation built, Pickens embraced Gundy and whispered something in his ear. Later, Gundy relayed the message. "He said that everything that he's put into this program -- this new stadium, this new locker room, this new facility -- that this win today was worth it," Gundy said.

Gundy could only shake his head and chuckle at the thought.

"He sees things a little differently than most people," Gundy said. "One hundred eighty-six million dollars is a lot of money for one win. I have a feeling that he expects more than that."

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