TULSA — It seems preposterous to suggest that in a game won 40-21, in a game that featured a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play and a 90-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, a game in which the victor rushed for 337 yards and compiled 506 in all, that such a game was won by defense.
But that’s exactly what happened on steamy Saturday afternoon at Chapman Stadium.
Oklahoma State beat host Tulsa in front of a pro-Cowboy crowd because the OSU defense tweaked its front at halftime and shut out the Golden Hurricane in the second half.
TU got off to a slow start and fell behind 17-0, then in the second quarter imposed its will on the OSU defense and led 21-20 at halftime.
“At some point,” said OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, “a defense has to take a stand, a physical stand, for the team to change the momentum, and they did that.”
Tulsa ended the first quarter with just 28 rushing yards on 10 attempts, and other than Zach Smith’s 39-yard TD throw to Keylon Stokes late in the period managed only 50 total yards on 15 plays.
Then in the second quarter, the Golden Hurricane got more aggressive with the run game and began exploiting the Cowboys’ soft defensive front. The result was 98 yards rushing on 22 carries, and nine minutes of possession that produced two more touchdowns that pushed the home team in front.
Basically, TU took over the line of scrimmage and imposed its will.
“They got after us pretty good in the second quarter,” OSU head coach Mike Gundy said. “Got us tired and ran the ball down our throat.”
So at halftime, Knowles made a fairly routine adjustment: he brought a secondary defender down into the box.
“The (OSU defensive coaches) changed our alignments,” Gundy said. “Got another guy up closer to the ball.
“They were pulling a tackle some and then they were pulling a tight end some,” Gundy explained. “They had a nice scheme — and they’re good at that anyway. So we got another guy up there so we could track the puller.”
It was a basic change, but the encouraging part for a largely beleaguered OSU defense — with Big 12 Conference play looming next week in Austin, Texas — is that it was so effective. In the second half, the Golden Hurricane ran the football 21 times and gained only 30 yards.
“Everybody saw what happened in the second quarter. We couldn’t stop ‘em,” Gundy said. “And they came in (to the locker room) and made two adjustments, got the information to the players, the players understood it, they took it on the field and they were able to execute. That’s coaching.”
It completely changed the tenor of the game, getting Tulsa out of its comfort zone and getting the football back to OSU playmakers like Chuba Hubbard, who ran for 256 yards and three touchdowns, and Tylan Wallance, who caught five passes for 116 yards and the end-to-end score.
When it was over and OSU had improved to 3-0, Gundy opened his postgame press conference by praising the defensive staff and players.
“That was a really, really good job by our defensive coaches making an adjustment at halftime and then our players taking the information from the locker room to the field to shut them down,” Gundy said. “We made the adjustments at halftime and came out and made plays, which was awesome by our defense. Mainly our coaches, for their adjustments. Then we were able to make some plays.”
Knowles, who has acknowledged how difficult it is to call defenses in the Big 12 Conference after coming from Duke last year, said the Cowboys are not only inexperienced across the rebuilt front seven, but they’ve also endured injuries and personnel absences (Oklahoma City native and Colorado transfer Israel Antwine still hasn’t been declared eligible to play).
“They were running the ball on us, and we needed the change,” Knowles said. “And we did. And you know, it’s good. Second year in the system, guys can make those adjustments at halftime and execute.”
Gundy said it’s not easy to just add things to the game plan in the middle of a game, even if it is during a 15-minute halftime.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to do,” Gundy said. “… You practice certain things all week and you can’t just all of a sudden change on Saturdays. And they made adjustments within our system that we had. Luckily, we had ‘em in our system that we could go to, but we hadn’t practiced ‘em much. But they got it done. They deserve the credit.”
Gundy took full credit himself for one of the game’s biggest plays.
After OSU reclaimed the lead at 27-21, Tulsa drove to midfield but had to punt. Sanders threw the bomb to Wallace that covered 90 yards and extended the Cowboys’ lead to two scores, but the Golden Hurricane had one more push.
Trailing 33-21, TU marched to the OSU 5-yard line and considered a field goal, but after the teams alternated timeouts, Gundy said he told Knowles to dial up a specific blitz. OSU overloaded the left side of the Tulsa line with two blitzers, the TU front didn’t slide over and safety Kolby Peel corralled Zach Smith for a 9-yard sack that all but ended it.
“My call,” Gundy said, pointing at himself with a big smile. “I said, ‘blitz.’
“I chew on those guys enough, so when they make adjustments like that and it gets carried over, then I ought to be able to give them credit. That’s what I told them and what I told the team. I mean, there’s no beating around the bush. There’s enough times that I chew on ‘em about stuff, so they did a hell of a job today making adjustments and getting it done in 13 or 14 minutes.
“They did a nice job.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.