Uprising in Stillwater

After manhandling Georgia for its biggest opening win, then seeing Oklahoma and Sam Bradford get flattened by BYU, Oklahoma State is the team to beat in the Sooner State
September 13, 2009

As he stood on thefield at Boone Pickens Stadium last Saturday, awash in the thunderous cheers ofthe orange-clad faithful, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy was approached by theman for whom the stadium is named. Pickens, the 81-year-old oil tycoon who hasdonated more than $250 million to the football program, put his arm around thecoach and, with a grin as wide as the Oklahoma panhandle, said in his ear,"Every dollar I've put in has been worth it, just for this one win." ¬∂That the No. 9 Cowboys had defeated 13th-ranked Georgia wasn't what was soshocking. After all, Oklahoma State, ranked higher than it had ever been at thestart of a season, was favored by a touchdown against a team that had lost itstwo best players, quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back KnowshonMoreno, to the NFL. What was stunning about the 24--10 win was how the Cowboysbullied the Bulldogs, overwhelming them not in a shootout, which was thetrademark of Big 12 teams in 2008, but rather in a bruising battle moretypically fought in SEC towns such as Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. Here was theOklahoma State defense (ranked 93rd last year, a laughingstock after it allowed56, 61 and 42 points in three of its last four games) yielding a game-opening80-yard touchdown drive but then holding Georgia to a field goal and 177 totalyards the rest of the way. Here were the Cowboys controlling a game in whichtheir three playmakers—quarterback Zac Robinson (11 for 22, 135 yards), runningback Kendall Hunter (23 carries, 75 yards) and wideout Dez Bryant (threecatches, 77 yards, two touchdowns)—were uncharacteristically out of sync.

After the defensemade one last stand, forcing Georgia quarterback Joe Cox to throw aninterception with 3:04 left, the roar from the record crowd of 53,012 resonatedacross this football-crazed state—and all the way to Cowboys Stadium inArlington, Texas, where three hours later three-time defending Big 12 championOklahoma was the victim in the biggest upset of the opening week of the 2009season, a 14--13 loss to No. 20 BYU. By late Saturday night, after a 54-yardfield goal attempt by the Sooners' Tress Way fell well short with 1:23 left andthe crimson-and-cream-dressed fans in the crowd of 75,437 went silent, thismuch was evident: Oklahoma, for one weekend, at least, wasn't the SoonerState.

A 22-pointfavorite, third-ranked Oklahoma rolled across the Red River into Texas with 14returning starters, including Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Sam Bradford.The only question about a team that went 12--2 and scored an NCAA-record 716points last season was how the offensive line would perform with four newstarters and the lone returnee, Trent Williams, playing a new position (lefttackle, in a switch from the right side). There had been a setback in thepreseason, when the projected center, redshirt freshman Ben Habern, missed timebecause of a back injury. Brody Eldridge, a 265-pound senior tight end andfullback, was moved to the spot over the ball and wound up starting againstBYU.

The line play wasabysmal, and in the last 12 seconds of the first half the Sooners' nationalchampionship hopes took a devastating blow as a result. With the game tied 7--7and Bradford dropping back on first down, Cougars linebacker Coleby Clawsonblitzed virtually untouched through the left side of the Oklahoma line andslammed Bradford to the turf just after he released a pass. The quarterbacklanded on his throwing shoulder, clutched it in pain and was helped off thefield. It was the third time Bradford, who was sacked only 11 times and rarelyotherwise even knocked down last season, hit the turf on that drive. "Myheart just dropped when I saw him laying on the ground," Williams said."Mistakes happen, but you hate for them to happen like that."

The Sooners settledfor a field goal and took a three-point lead into the locker room, but that wasthe last bit of good news for them in this game. When Bradford came out for thesecond half, he was in street clothes with his right arm in a sling, the resultof a sprained acromioclavicular joint. On Monday, coach Bob Stoops said thatthe junior would be reevaluated in a week or two, adding, "It's going to bea fairly long process."

With redshirtfreshman Landry Jones at quarterback behind that shaky line, the SoonerSchooner never got rolling. All told, Oklahoma offensive linemen were flaggedfor four false starts, a pair of holding penalties and a personal foul. "Atremendous comedy of errors," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said onSunday, referring primarily to the line play. "I did not see thatcoming."

Still leading 10--7with 13:37 to play, the Sooners got a pass-interference call that gave them afirst down at the BYU two-yard line. But three plays netted only one yard,Jones was penalized for delay of game on fourth down and Oklahoma settled for afield goal. "I thought our guys played hard," Stoops said after thegame. "I didn't think they played very smart."

It was on Labor Dayweekend 25 years ago that BYU stunned another third-ranked team, Pittsburgh, tocommence its march to an improbable national championship. Now, with home gamesleft against No. 18 Florida State, No. 17 TCU and No. 19 Utah, this BYU teamhas positioned itself to make a run at a BCS championship-game berth. And theCougars' brash, strong-armed senior quarterback, Max Hall—who called to mindBYU greats Jim McMahon and Steve Young as he drove his team 78 yards on 16plays for the game-winning touchdown—improved his standing in a Heisman racethat is more intriguing with Bradford's early exit.

In Stillwater, thebuildup to Oklahoma State's most anticipated opener in school history began notlong after the 2008 season ended with a 42--31 loss to Oregon in the HolidayBowl. The Georgia fight song had been blaring on speakers in the Cowboys'weight room as far back as the spring. "I couldn't get it out of myhead," says cornerback Perrish Cox. "It got to the point where I foundmyself humming it out of nowhere." Gundy noted that ticket scalpers wereworking the streets a week before the game. Four hours before kickoff, as Gundyhelped cut the ribbon for the opening of the renovated stadium, a prominentOklahoma State booster proclaimed the day the "biggest in the history ofthe university," then turned to Gundy and said, "Good luck."

"Nopressure," Gundy quipped later.

After the Bulldogsopened the game with the 10-play, 80-yard TD drive, the silence in the stadiumsaid it all: Here we go again. But when the defense came to the sideline, Gundywas surprised to see that there was no panic on the players' faces, only calm."In years past we would have gone in the tank," says Gundy, who is inhis fifth season. "But after they scored, no one flinched." Georgia,stifled by the zone blitzing and sound tackling of the Cowboys, would crossmidfield only once more for the rest of the game.

That new defensiveswagger starts with first-year coordinator Bill Young, 63, who turned adreadful Kansas defense into a top 15 unit in 2007 and is regarded in collegefootball circles as a brilliant teacher. Throughout Saturday's game Gundywatched in amazement as Young, a former Oklahoma State defensive end, calledschemes and "at the same time," Gundy said, "turned around and toldthe defensive linemen on the sideline what the D-linemen on the field weredoing wrong."

When Young'spredecessor, Tim Beckman, became defensive coordinator under Gundy in 2007, heset the modest goal of turning a putrid defense into a top 50 unit. (TheCowboys ranked no higher than 93rd under Beckman, who left to become the coachat Toledo.) "We certainly want to be better than 50th in the country—wewant to be the best defense in the Big 12," says Young, the coordinator atMiami last season. "The talent's here. There are guys here that I tried torecruit at Kansas who wouldn't give us the time of day."

One of thoseplayers is Perrish Cox, a senior from Waco, Texas, who limited Georgia's mostdangerous weapon, wideout A.J. Green, to four catches for 52 yards and drew thetype of cheers the Oklahoma State crowd usually reserves for its team'soffensive stars. On the Bulldogs' first drive Cox swatted away a ball intendedfor Green in a back corner of the end zone. On the next drive the 6-foot Cox,who has a 36½-inch vertical leap, went high over the back of the 6'4"Green, reached past the wideout's right shoulder and batted the ball again. Coxalso returned the second-half kickoff 73 yards, setting up the touchdown thatput the Cowboys ahead 17--7.

"Their defenseis underrated," says Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. "Theirlinebackers aren't as fast as the ones in our league, but they're bigger, morephysical. Their corners are fast—Cox is a tremendous athlete. You hear peoplesay the Big 12 is a quarterback conference, all offense. But Oklahoma heldFlorida to 24 points in the championship game last year. These guys can playdefense, too."

A year ago theCowboys ranked 42nd in the country in turnovers forced, with 25 in 13 games; onSaturday they got three turnovers while committing none. According to defensivetackle Derek Burton, Young was obsessed about creating turnovers in spring andfall drills. After practice he would litter lockers with orange pieces ofpaper, the number of takeaways the defense had forced that day written inblack. He barked at his players to pick up every ball that hit the turf, evenincomplete passes. Says Cox, "The only thing [Young] says in practice is'Strip, strip, strip.' The guys on offense got ticked off about it. We got intoit [with them] a few times."

As if scripted byYoung, the pivotal play against Georgia came when free safety Lucien Antoineput a vicious hit on Bulldogs running back Carlton Thomas, forcing a fumble.Cornerback Terrance Anderson fell on the loose ball, setting up the latesecond-quarter field goal that would give the Cowboys the lead for good."With their offense getting all the credit, the defense is playing likethey're trying to prove people wrong," says Georgia's Joe Cox. "Theyhave as much talent as anyone we play [in the SEC]. And they clearly now havethe hunger, too."

For sure, one ofthe top dogs in the Big 12 resides 85 miles to the north of Norman. When thenew AP Poll was released on Sept. 8, Oklahoma State was expected to be rankedahead of Oklahoma for the first time since 1997. The Cowboys should be favoredin each of their next six games leading up to the Oct. 31 showdown with No. 2Texas in Stillwater—a game that, if it matches two unbeatens, would be the Big12 game of the year. Pickens said recently that if the Cowboys received a BCSbid, "it would probably make me pee in my pants."

Good thing he canafford a new pair.

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PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN BIEVERDOUBLE TROUBLE Perrish Cox (16) made life miserable for Green, the Dawgs' star wideout, and added a momentum-changing play on special teams. PHOTOVERNON BRYANT/DALLAS MORNING NEWS (BRADFORD)OFF LINE Bradford (14) was felled by a blown protection call; an inability to punch it in from the one was costly too. PHOTOGREG NELSON[See caption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANSDIRECT HIT James Thomas (22) got physical with Georgia wideout Tavarres King as the Cowboys forced three turnovers.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)