STILLWATER — Alan Bowman watched the image rolling back and forth, back and forth on the massive screen at the east end of Boone Pickens Stadium, and the Oklahoma State quarterback could come to only one conclusion: Trey Rucker had not only stopped BYU receiver Isaac Rex, but the Cowboy safety had also stripped the ball, then recovered it.
Soon enough, the officials would agree with Bowman’s assessment.
Fumble forced. Fumble recovered. Game over.
OSU 40, BYU 34 in double overtime.
“That was unbelievable,” Bowman said of Rucker’s play almost an hour later while sitting in the OSU football meeting room, surrounded by reporters. “I haven’t seen a play like that.”
It was the play that finally put away the Cougars and punched the Cowboys’ ticket to Arlington. Yes, during a season in which OSU lost to South Alabama and got blown out by UCF, the Cowboys found a way to get to the Big 12 Championship Game. And as kooky a script as that sounds, here’s one that might seem as kooky — it was the OSU defense that did it.
This is the defense that has a new coordinator and a new scheme as well as a bunch of new faces this season, but it was the difference Saturday.
On a day people will remember Ollie Gordon’s five touchdowns, including his stop-on-a-dime, change-of-direction, leap-toward-the-goal-line score that ended up being the game-winner in the second overtime, the defense won this game.
Gordon and Bowman and the rest of the offense would’ve had no shot at their late-game heroics if not for the Cowboy defense.
Here’s BYU’s drive chart in the second half: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal.
That field goal, of course, sent the game to overtime. Still, without the Cowboy defense forcing one punt after another, including four three-and-outs in the second half, the Cowboy offense has no chance at coming back from a 24-6 halftime deficit.
“I think our kids approached it with the mentality of we’re going to get out there and get the ball back to our offense,” Cowboy defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo said. “I think it speaks to the character of our kids.
“Our kids don’t flinch. It’s very easy to have a situation where things start to get away from you, things start to snowball, and they didn’t let it happen.”
BYU came in and popped OSU good in the first half. A nine-play, 73-yard drive for a touchdown. A six-play, 89-yard drive for another touchdown. A quick eight-play drive late in the first half to set up a field goal.
Yes, the Cowboy offense gave up a pick-six in the first half, so the Cougars’ 24 first-half points weren’t all on the defense. But adjustments had to be made at halftime.
Cowboy defenders said the biggest change revolved around getting more pressure on Cougar quarterback Jake Retzlaff.
“We wanted to get more pressure on ‘em,” OSU linebacker Nick Martin said. “Get more pressure on them while affecting the run game.”
Fellow linebacker Collin Oliver said, “Applying pressure to the quarterback, just letting him know that we’re here.”
The Cowboys didn’t finish the game with any sacks, but they had six quarterback hurries. Look at the second half, and you’ll see Retzlaff never got into any kind of rhythm. OSU didn’t allow him to.
On BYU’s first possession after halftime, a moment when the Cougars really could’ve put the Cowboys in a tough spot by adding another score, Retzlaff had runs of 3 yards as Martin tracked him down quickly, then 0 yards as safety Kendal Daniels shot in for the tackle. That forced a pass that was completed but went for minus-3 yards.
BYU’s next possession, Retzlaff had two passes that were both broken up at the line of scrimmage, the first by Justin Kirkland, the second by Kody Walterscheid.
In the first half, Retzlaff threw for 128 yards.
After that, he managed only 33 passing yards, including the overtimes.
That allowed the OSU offense a chance to get going. It scored three touchdowns on six second-half possessions after managing no touchdowns and two field goals on seven first-half possessions, not including the possession halted by the end of the first half.
But none of that has a chance to happen if the defense doesn’t shut down BYU. That’s a tall task for any defense, but for a unit that’s in its first season under a new coordinator and is still playing several guys who are young and inexperienced, it’s an even tougher task.
These Cowboys, however, found a way.
“We’ve grown up,” Daniels said. “We’ve grown up together, and we’ve expanded our defense, and we’ve changed a lot of things.
“It’s what we wanted. It’s what we expected of ourselves all this season.”
I’m not sure many outside the program would’ve thought this defense would be in a place to get the Cowboys to the Big 12 title game. It’s a huge credit to Nardo, to his assistants, to his players for making it happen.
So it was fitting that the game would end on a defensive play, a play with such a high level of difficulty that no less than the Cowboy quarterback would stand in the middle of the Boone Pickens Stadium turf as it played on the big screen and marvel at it.
“That was one of the plays of the season,” Bowman said.
A big play on a big day for Cowboys everywhere.