STILLWATER — La’Damian Webb snatched the football and rammed his way through the line of scrimmage like he did so many times Saturday.
It was only the second play of the second half, so you figured if Oklahoma State had made adjustments at halftime after a woeful first half, that would be the time to show it. But Webb, the battering ram of a tailback from South Alabama, bounced off linebacker Collin Oliver, then took contact from linebacker Xavier Benson and defensive end Nathan Latu.
None of those Cowboys would be considered undersized.
Benson and Latu drove Webb to the sideline, but he never went down. Never hit the turf. Never lost his footing.
And in that moment, the reality was obvious — South Alabama wasn’t going down either.
South Alabama 33, OSU 7.
This was an embarrassment.
On a night just about everything about the Cowboys was dreadful — their matte black helmets may have been the best part of the evening — there were many issues to address. The head coach needs to be better. Ditto for the offensive play calling and the defensive schemes, the players’ energy and execution, the run game and the run defense.
But really, the thing that should stick in the craw of Cowboys everywhere is this: they got pushed around.
South Alabama, carrying the banner for the Sun Belt Conference and the Group of Five schools, was more physical. The Jaguars didn’t win with trick players or crazy schemes. No smoke and mirrors here.
Instead, they lined up and knocked around the Cowboys.
“It is concerning,” Cowboy defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo said. “But I believe our kids are physical.”
I believe they are, too, but they sure didn’t show it Saturday.
From the beginning, South Alabama was more physical.
On OSU’s first possession, South Alabama defenders affected at least half of the plays. They forced Alan Bowman to throw a dump-off pass to Ollie Gordon, the play’s safety valve, after all other receivers were covered. They pushed De’Zhaun Stribling out of bounds on what would’ve otherwise been a catch. And they hurried Bowman and forced him to throw away the ball.
Then when South Alabama took possession, it put together a 13-play drive that culminated in a field goal. Eight of the plays were runs. None of them were big-chunk plays — only three went over four yards — but the Jaguars just kept pounding.
The next drive, they had a run that went for 12 yards.
The next, a 17-yard run scored a touchdown.
Nardo felt his defenders were in position to limit yardage.
“You looked up, and it was like, ‘All right, we’re there,’” he said. “Then all of a sudden, it’s second and 6 instead of second and 9.”
South Alabama got extra yards all night because of their effort, their drive, their toughness, and when all was said and done, it rushed for 243 yards on 47 carries.
OSU finished the game with 94 yards on 29 carries.
On the defensive side, South Alabama finished the game with four sacks and five quarterback hurries while OSU, by comparison, had two sacks and no hurries.
Listen, I’m not suggesting those discrepancies are all about physicality. Not by a long shot. The three Cowboy coaches made available to reporters after the game all said the game plans were not good enough.
“That part disappoints me,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said.
“We’ll be critical on ourselves. We’ll be critical on the players. Everybody has to own it.”
Gundy seemed to do just that.
“We had a packed house, and I feel bad for our fans the way we coached and played,” he said. “I apologize to them. Great crowd. Great atmosphere. And we didn’t do a very good job of coaching and certainly didn’t do a very good job executing.”
The last time OSU lost a non-conference game to a non-power-conference team was Central Michigan in 2016. That was not a good performance by the Cowboys; they were at home, had a good roster and should’ve won by two or three scores.
Of course, that was the game in which Central Michigan was erroneously awarded an extra untimed down at the end of regulation. The Chippewas scored and turned what should have been a Cowboy victory into defeat.
What we saw Saturday was something else entirely.
This was no fluke. OSU was dominated by South Alabama from the start.
“Today’s the worst we’ll ever be,” Nardo said.
He explained that a quote he uses with his players constantly. He used it when he first arrived in Stillwater earlier this year. He says it at practice and in meetings.
“Everyone loves that when you have a great day and you talk about getting better,” he said.
But after what we saw Saturday, it hits differently.
Today’s the worst they’ll ever be?
The Cowboys better hope so.
None of what happened against South Alabama bodes well. If the Cowboys struggled so mightily at home against a Group of Five opponent, how the heck are they going to manage Big 12 competition? How are they supposed to go toe-to-toe with Kansas State and Kansas and OU and any other team left on the schedule?
The Cowboys have to fix a lot of things, but schemes can be improved, execution can be practiced and personnel can be shifted.
Can physicality be altered in the same way?
“We practice that way,” Gundy said. “I know you guys are gonna think it’s funny, but we practiced better this week than we did last week.
“We were physical, and we practiced pretty well.”
It did not show Saturday night.
And as the final seconds ticked off the clock, OSU players trudged toward the locker room while South Alabama players congregated in other corner of the stadium where their small contingent of fans was sitting. An impromptu celebration erupted, and a chant went up.
“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
The University of South Alabama raised its banner high after it knocked OSU on its keister.