STILLWATER — On an afternoon with lots of big numbers on the scoreboard and the stat sheet, this Oklahoma State-Nebraska game came down to a small digit.
Talk about the passing yards from Cornhusker quarterback Taylor Martinez all you want. Dissect the rushing yards by Cowboy tailback Kendall Hunter or the receiving yards by his teammate Justin Blackmon. But this game was all about third down.
Nebraska converted them.
Nebraska 51, OSU 41.
"That's the difference in the game," Cowboy quarterback Brandon Weeden said of third-down conversions. "We harp on that. At halftime, that's one of the things we wanted to correct, and we didn't do a very good job of it."
No doubt about that.
Thirteen times, the Cowboys faced third down on Saturday. Only three times did they convert.
The Cornhuskers were 8 of 18.
While the OSU defense had its share of troubles with missed tackles and soft coverage, everyone knows that the strength of this Cowboy team is its offense. This is an offense that simply has to score, has to roll up points, has to keep the chains moving if this team wants to win against good teams.
And Nebraska is the best team that OSU has played this season.
The Cowboys had to keep drives alive if they wanted to beat the Cornhuskers, and they didn't get it done.
"You convert third downs, you get first downs, you score touchdowns," OSU receiver Justin Blackmon said, reciting the words as though they are a mantra he's heard many times. "That's something we know, and that's something we've just got to do."
Until Saturday afternoon, it was something that the Cowboys have done. They had occasional third-down struggles in some of their blowout victories, but more than likely, that was a product of reserves playing and focus waning.
Kind of hard to criticize a group that's scoring points in bunches.
Truth is, OSU put up another big number Saturday.
Nebraska had allowed 84 points combined in its first six games, and only Washington and Texas had scored more than 20 points against the Cornhuskers. With their remaining schedule dominated by Big 12 North teams, they may not give up 41 points the rest of the season.
The fact remains that OSU had several critical third-down meltdowns.
Worst among them came early in the fourth quarter. After a field goal pushed Nebraska's lead to double digits, OSU needed to answer. The Cowboys needed to put together a drive, sustain something, score something.
But after a short Hunter run and a Weeden incompletion, the Cowboys faced a must-convert, third-and-long.
Weeden looked to Josh Cooper, a good option Saturday when the sophomore receiver had nine catches for 103 yards, but they failed to connect.
Instead of a scoring drive, the Cowboys went three and out.
The Cowboys converted only once on third down in the first half, and offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen let them know about it.
"We talked ... about the importance of doing it and we didn't do much better in the second half," he said. "It's a critical down. We've got to convert.
Not nearly enough.
"It is the want," Blackmon said. "You've got to strain harder on the third down than you do on the first down. You've got to want to stay on the field. You've got to want to be out there."
Who knows? Maybe this will be a one-game blip. Maybe we'll never talk again this season about how the Cowboys' third-down conversions killed them.
But if it becomes a problem, there's little doubt that it will be the reason for more OSU losses. These Cowboys have to have their offense on the field, moving the chains and getting into the end zone.
Is it fair that so much pressure is on the offense?
Probably not. This is a team game, after all, but it's obvious after Saturday that against better opponents, the Cowboy offense is going to have to carry the freight.
Saturday, it didn't.
Said Weeden: "Mistakes on my part. Mistakes by everybody. It wasn't just one person. It was the whole unit."
Correct this third-down problem, and the Cowboys will get back on track.
Continue to struggle with it, though, and they will play many more games with big numbers, high scores and record performances that are ultimately decided by that tiny numeral three.