STILLWATER — The Cowboys pride themselves on being tough. Always have. Good seasons or bad. Mike Gundy teams or Floyd Gass teams. World War II era or 21st century. Doesn’t matter. Oklahoma State football brands itself as tough. But last December, in a frou-frou city against a team from the soft Pac-10, the Cowboys wilted. Oregon beat up the Cowboys 42-31 in the Holiday Bowl, and the Cowboys have been beating themselves up ever since. "They really did take over and beat us,” said OSU defensive tackle Derek Burton. "Flat-out beat us. I hate to say that, but that’s how it happened. I don’t want it to happen again.” Neither does Gundy. The Cowboy coach blames himself for the loss in San Diego. Believes he took it too easy on OSU in the bowl practices. Vows it won’t happen again. "We’ve been a tough football team,” Gundy said. "But we weren’t in that game. It’s up to us to get back on track.” Oregon out-hit OSU. Out-toughed the Cowboys, particularly in the fourth quarter. The Ducks trailed 17-7 at halftime but won going away. Gundy was worried about his team’s health last December. Worried about its depth. So Gundy lightened up on practice, then sensed something was wrong. "I thought, ‘maybe it’ll be all right,’ ” Gundy said. "But it wasn’t.” Oregon pushed around the Cowboys. Ran the ball at will: 194 yards rushing in the second half. Popped the OSU offense with a series of vicious hits; Zac Robinson and Dez Bryant were the fife-and-bugle corps by game’s end. "The first quarter, we go out, hit ’em in the mouth,” receiver DeMarcus Conner said. "We let that go away. You gotta practice like you’re going to play the game.” Which is why there will be nothing soft about OSU’s August workouts. The Cowboys don’t go full pads until today, but already practices are a tough-man contest. "The first two days, it was physical,” Conner said. "Shoulder pads and shorts, but people tackling all the time.” That’s how OSU football has to win. The Cowboys have done a remarkable job of recruiting ballhandlers over the years. But unless the Cowboys sport pickup-driving, bloody-nosed ruffians who finish in the fourth quarter, this 2009 season will not reach the end of the rainbow. "In camp right now, we only have our shoulders pads and helmet on, but we’re still out there knocking heads,” said linebacker Andre Sexton. "You see everybody being more competitive. "I think it’s really a lot more fun in practice when you start getting in disputes with the offense and then it’s like everybody goes an extra step harder.” Gundy admits he holds his breath on every collision. These Cowboys are like most college teams; they can’t afford injuries. "But the flip side, if you don’t do it, you’re not going to be prepared,” Gundy said. Toughness is both physical and mental. If it’s 105 degrees, will a player still practice hard or do they wait until it’s, like Pat Jones used to say, 72 and partly cloudy? San Diego weather. Mentally tough players, defensive end Jamie Blatnick said, "are not going to crack under pressure. People who push through pain and not fall out. Watch the fourth quarter. See who’s out there and doing what they did in the first quarter.” That’s what was missing in the Holiday Bowl’s fourth quarter. That’s what can’t go AWOL in 2009. Berry Tramel: 405-760-8080; Berry Tramel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.