STILLWATER — After consecutive stellar performances by the West Virginia defense against two of the Big 12 Conference’s better offenses, the narrative all week has been about how the Mountaineers play as close to real defense as the beleaguered league can offer.
WVU, it was said, knows how to play defense.
Nothing about that narrative changed on Saturday as the Mountaineers invaded Boone Pickens Stadium — they clearly can tackle, like to hit and even know a thing or two about pass coverage — but all that praise toward West Virginia lit a fire under the Oklahoma State defense.
And that defense produced three crucial turnovers in the Cowboys’ 37-20 homecoming victory. With an angry attitude and a strong focus, OSU put forth its best defensive outing of the season.
“I think so,” said coach Mike Gundy, who celebrated his 100th career victory with an icy Gatorade shower alongside his oldest son Gavin, home from college. “We don’t talk a lot about the topic you mentioned in detail, but I kind of watched from a distance and I agree with what you said. I think it instigated both sides of the ball.”
The Cowboys improved to 6-2 overall and 3-1 in Big 12 play, while previously unbeaten and 10th-ranked WVU fell to 6-1 and 3-1.
Two interceptions and a fumble set the Cowboy offense up for 17 points, and Mason Rudolph and his crew barely had to work for those. Vincent Taylor’s sack of Skyler Howard forced a fumble that Colt Walterscheid returned to the West Virginia 13-yard line, Ramon Richards returned his pick 59 yards to the WVU 9, and Kevin Henry ran his interception back 26 yards to the Mountaineer 10.
In all, O-State went just 26 yards to get its free 17 points.
“This one is pretty simple,” said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. “Two pretty evenly matched teams. They made three plays that flat out affected the game. It’s as simple as that. They forced three turnovers. They took all three of them down into the red zone. Basically gave them 17 points and we lose by 17 points. That’s the difference in the game. They’re as good as anybody in the country at converting on turnovers.”
“I think we’re leading the nation in starting field position,” said defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer.
Spencer fell deathly ill on Friday night, fever and chills and was up all night sweating and shivering. Between series on Saturday, he said he simply laid his head down on the coaches box table to rest up.
Maybe it was something he ate. Maybe it was the Cowboys’ practice earlier in the week.
“We had a bad practice on Tuesday,” Spencer said. “We got ripped. But we came back Wednesday, we challenged ‘em a lot, they had a good practice Wednesday and Thursday.
“Just emphasized before the game about doing your job, your responsibility, and then playing with unbelievable effort and being as violent as possible. They pride themselves on being real tough, so we challenged them all week, you know, ‘The tougher team’s gonna win.’ And that was kind of the thing all week with ‘em we tried to sell.”
Gundy said the offense, facing the prospect of trying to defeat the Big 12’s newest defensive juggernaut, felt similarly challenged.
“I think our offensive staff and our players took it personal, and our defense did exactly what you said,” Gundy said. “That’s not something I speak to directly (with the team), but I do see it from afar.”
WVU, which gave up just 300 yards and 10 points in a victory over TCU and 379 yards and 17 points in a win at Texas Tech, still had a nice day defensively in Stillwater. The Mountaineers allowed just 358 total yards on 67 plays (just 5.3 yards per play) and gave up just 85 rushing yards on 31 attempts (a mere 2.7 yards per carry). Freshman running back Justice Hill was slowed considerably with just 54 yards on 19 rushes.
But Rudolph was efficient, completing 26-of-36 for 273 yards and three touchdowns. He was not intercepted and was sacked only once. Rudolph worked Jalen McCleskey short (11 catches, 66 yards and a touchdown) and James Washington long (six catches, 117 yards), and in the red zone he utilized Chris Lacy (three catches, 21 yards, two TDs).
“His maturity has allowed him to understand,” Gundy said of Rudolph. “He’s being more patient.”
Rudolph’s counterpart, however, Howard, committed numerous catastrophic errors. He was 24-of-39 for 212 yards, threw two interceptions, lost the fumble deep in his own territory after holding the ball too long, and took four sacks.
It was, in all, a fulfilling day for the homecoming crowd of 59,584. A year after the 2015 homecoming parade tragedy that took four lives, there was a sense of peace amid the mourning, a respectful celebration.
“I mentioned that to the team earlier in the week,” Gundy said. “I really don’t know how to address it. We want to play the game and play every game as hard as we can. For all of us, homecoming here is special because it’s the largest homecoming in the country. Like, I saw (former Cowboy) D’Juan Woods in the locker room. D’Juan lives in L.A. now and he came all the way back here for homecoming. That means a lot to us and it should mean a lot to the coaching staff because it means the players want to come back. You want to play the best you can, but it’s never a guarantee. And it’s nice to beat a team that’s ranked 10th in the country on the same day for everybody involved.”
That it was Gundy’s 100th win and perhaps his most important victory in two years wasn’t lost on him, though on a personal level, he downplayed reaching the century mark.
“Fortunately we’ve had a number of big wins here in the last six or eight years. And I told the players just now and I joked with D’Juan that they created a monster here and the only way to feed it is to win big games like they did today. That’s just the way it’s gonna be from this point on,” Gundy said. “They were able to satisfy that part of it today, and what it means is they’ve made a decision to come together as a group. It’s their team. It’s their team chemistry. It’s their willingness to put in the time and effort. The coaches can only do so much. At some point they have to make those decisions, and that’s what they did today. And during the week, their preparation was tremendous.
“It’s special for all of us. For me to say that 100 wins is not special for me would not be fair in that that means that we’re doing well here and having success. The players know that at the end of the day, we’re responsible for putting out a product that the fans and people in the country want to see. They’re exciting, they play the game the right way, they graduate in four years, then they go out in society with some character, some substance to them and be productive. That’s really what our goal is. They know that. So that far outweighs an individual 100-win accomplishment. And that is the truth.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.