STILLWATER — With Oklahoma State up by 10 points late in the fourth quarter, safety Andre Sexton couldn’t help but think about the Cowboys’ victorious start to Big 12 play.

Defensive end Darnell Smith knew better.

“I tried to tell them that I’ve been in situations before, I was trying to tell them to calm down,” Smith said. “You don’t say anything until the game’s over.”

After weeks of talking about how much they had improved since going 4-7 last season, the Cowboys (3-2, 0-1 Big 12) finally had their chance to provide proof. Instead, the game ended in disappointment.

“As a defense, we didn’t finish the game. That’s what it ultimately came down to,” linebacker Rodrick Johnson said. “We’ve got to finish the game. You do well all through the game and then at the end of the game you let it slip away, that’s the toughest way to lose.”

The buzzword for the Cowboys this week was “finish.” Don’t let another opportunity to win slip away.

On Saturday, the Cowboys’ 10-point lead evaporated quickly as Kansas State scored twice in the final 3:04 to claim a 31-27 win. The Wildcats got the ball with 4:25 to play and needed only six plays — including back-to-back passes of 31 and 43 yards from freshman Josh Freeman to Jermaine Moreira — to march 92 yards for a score.

Oklahoma State then went three-and-out, gave Kansas State the ball back and the Wildcats used three big plays to cover 58 yards take the lead on Freeman’s 21-yard run.

“It just got away from us,” Johnson said. “Actually, blur is a good way to describe it because when I really think back on it, half the plays they ran I can’t even remember. It went by so quick.”

Oklahoma State defenders said there wasn’t anything the team did differently schematically to allow the comeback. Sexton said the Cowboys were aggressive but unable to get to Freeman, and that allowed him time to make plays.

But there also was some scoreboard-watching going on.

“There was a time when people were looking at the clock thinking that the game was over, and a lot of the veterans were trying to calm them down, saying that we still need to go out there and play,” Smith said.

Sexton counted himself among the guilty parties.

“I’m sitting there in the back of my mind the whole fourth quarter pretty much thinking, ‘We’ve got this win. We’re going to be 1-0 in the Big 12,’ and I’m starting looking on to the next game,” Sexton said.

The loss was the second straight for the Cowboys. After a 34-25 defeat at Houston on Sept. 23, coach Mike Gundy questioned his team’s toughness, claiming the Cowboys were outhit in the fourth quarter.

“Now I’ll stand up here and say that we had a couple of breakdowns and we missed a couple tackles,” Gundy said, “but we were certainly in a much better position to win the football game.”

To close out games, Gundy said the coaching staff must instill this statement in their players’ minds: “You’re in a position to do it, now just go make a play.”

It’s not a matter of making wholesale changes.

“We’re going to stick to our game plan,” Smith said. “We’re going to do what we do best.”

Until the closing minutes, that had been working. Oklahoma State’s defense had kept the Wildcats out of the end zone, with Kansas State’s first two touchdowns coming on a punt block and a kickoff return.

Then the Cowboys, who had yielded 207 yards of total offense through the first 55 minutes, gave up 150 yards on Kansas State’s final nine plays.

So, how do the Cowboys fix it when they play Kansas (3-3, 0-2) on Saturday?

“You play the same way that you started the game, with the intensity, the enthusiasm, the guys flying around to the football,” Johnson said. “That’s the same way you should finish the game.”

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