By Jason Elmquist
CNHI News Service
HOUSTON – Oklahoma State had to rely on something Saturday in the season opener that has been a crutch for the Cowboys the past few years – defense.
With the OSU offense sputtering for the better part of the first half, the Cowboy defense bore down on the Mississippi State Bulldogs – giving up only a field goal on the opening drive of the game.
The Pokes rode that pony all the way to a 21-3 victory for both OSU and the Big 12 Conference.
“There haven’t been many games at Oklahoma State over the last five or six years – maybe longer than that – where defense was the story. It’s a team game, and the defense certainly kept us in the game and allowed our offense to get things going,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “... It’s really early, and I don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse, but I felt that we were more athletic and more talented up front (on defense) that we have been in the years I’ve been here as the head coach. So this was a good step for us.”
With Clint Chelf getting the start at quarterback, the Oklahoma State offense couldn’t go anywhere – with most throws being short passes or screen plays. After two unsuccessful drives with Chelf at the helm – with OSU picking up just 21 yards and one first down – Chelf made way for J.W. Walsh.
The Denton, Texas, native took advantage of his opportunity in the Cowboy backfield.
Though his first three drives stalled near midfield, Walsh did move the ball more effectively. And when he was finally given the chance to use his greatest asset – his legs – the Cowboys finally broke the game open.
With OSU still trailing 3-0 with four minutes remaining in the first half, Walsh broke loose for a 46-yard run to the Mississippi State 14 – the first time in the red zone for the Cowboys. Just a few plays later, Walsh walked in for a 3-yard touchdown to give Oklahoma State a lead into halftime.
“It was exciting just to be able to get in in the first game of the season – we’ve been waiting all year for it,” said Walsh, who was named the starter by Gundy for next week’s game against UTSA. “To be able to get in and get to play and lay it on the line with the guys ... it was a lot of fun. There were some tough moments at the beginning there, but once we hit our stride we were good.”
The Cowboys took the opening drive of the second half 75 yards on 11 plays, with Walsh going 4 of 5 for 30 yards and 11 yards rushing, which was capped by senior running back Jeremy Smith’s 1-yard touchdown run.
OSU put up another score early in the fourth with a nine-play, 82-yard drive with Smith scoring his second touchdown of the game on a 20-yard run.
“We moved the ball a little bit ... we actually had some rhythm and some momentum. The running game that was added to our offense by coach (Mike) Yurcich played to his (Walsh’s) favor today because Mississippi State struggled with defending it and obviously we could see that,” said Gundy, whose offense was held to 146 yards passing, the fewest yards passing since the 2010 Cotton Bowl against Ole Miss.
“We were getting chunks and we had a penalty and we were still getting chunks and we were getting in the open field running the ball. ... First game of the year, an unorthodox blocking scheme and set, and in my opinion it was obvious that they struggled with it and that we needed to keep running it.”
With the game in hand, the Cowboy defense was able to prevent the Bulldog offense from finding the end zone. Wagoner ex Kevin Peterson recorded two tackles in the game for the Cowboys.
The OSU defense put the final nail in the coffin with an interception by Zach Craig with two minutes left in the game. It was the second interception of the game, the other coming in the first quarter by Justin Gilbert, his first since 2011.
“It felt great. I haven’t had an interception in a live game like that in two years, so to start it off with an interception in the first game is a great feeling,” said Gilbert, who is from the Houston area. “... I’ve been saying in my head that I never went anywhere. Now I just look at last year as a minor setback for a major comeback.”
Going up against a team from the SEC, which is known for defense, it was the Cowboy defense that proved to be better, even beyond the turnover battle. The three points given up by the defense were the first time since the 1995 Bedlam game that an OSU defense held a BCS conference opponent to three or fewer points.
Oklahoma State’s front seven got pressure on the Mississippi State quarterbacks to the tune of three sacks, and held the Bulldogs to 2 of 16 (12 percent) on third-down conversions. After giving up 105 yards on the first two drives of the game, the Pokes held MSU to 228 yards the rest of the way, with the longest driving going 75 yards but resulting in a missed field goal.
“Our guys have taken a lot of beating over the years and they know it’s just one game,” first-year defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “But for one night though, for one night, they can be proud of what they did. And I sure am proud of them. For one night, they can say they did their part to win a game and maybe they will love that feeling and will want to do it again and again.”
– Jason Elmquist is the sports editor for the Stillwater NewsPress.