STILLWATER — As defensive end Tyler Johnson rumbled toward the Iowa State end zone, carrying a fumble return for an Oklahoma State touchdown, several of his teammates provided clearing blocks along the way.
Some backed off.
Just the way the Cowboys teach and preach it.
OSU used two defensive scores to help turn Saturday's trip to Ames into a 58-27 rout. Cornerback Justin Gilbert sped 31 yards to an early touchdown after jumping a route for an interception, before Johnson punctuated things with his late 54-yard journey to a TD.
Both big plays.
Both clean plays, which shouldn't be taken for granted.
“When you score and turn around and see the yellow flag,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, “you're like, ‘Aww.'”
The Cowboys lead the Big 12 in turnover margin and takeaways per game. And those figure to be two key story lines heading to Texas Tech this weekend, considering OSU's offensive inconsistencies and the Red Raiders' penchant for surrendering the ball.
And not only are OSU coaches stressing takeaways, they're stressing maximizing returns, too, by urging returners to stay on their feet and urging others to resist regrettable penalties that can limit the payoff of such momentum-seizing plays.
“Our players have been very well coached from our defensive coaches that when (they get a turnover), stay up, don't cut (block), don't block in the back, don't cheap shot, so where you can get returns,” Mike Gundy said.
“There's nothing more disappointing than when you get an interception or fumble recovery and you run it in and guys who are behind are cut-blocking or pushing in the back and they bring it back.”
Johnson's return turned textbook in every way, starting with Joe Mitchell's strip of Cyclones receiver Ernst Brun to cause the fumble, to Johnson's scoop and scoot, to the convoy of blockers who did their job.
“Fortunately, I think that played a part in my little play there,” Johnson said. “There were a couple good blocks. Calvin Barnett made a good block. Lyndell (Johnson), he was in the way. Ashton Lampkin, I fell behind him and utilized him.
“It was a team effort.”
Said Spencer: “Good blocks there. Smart blocks, too. And we had a couple of other guys pull off, because it was a close call. They were behind the ball, so no sense getting a clip. Good execution.”
Expecting clean returns is easier said than done.
Defenders aren't taught the finer points of blocking. In the excitement of the play, guys often get carried away in seek-and-destroy mode.
Yet Gundy uses practice time to at least emphasize the importance of not drawing a flag.
“What Mike's done a nice job of in practice is when we've had those opportunities, he's allowed us to stress it,” Spencer said. “And he stresses it, too. Hopefully it's always in the forefront of their mind.
“It's something you can't practice a lot, but you hope with smart kids and you emphasis it each time it happens, ‘Hey, just remember, no blocking below the waist, no one blocking behind the ball, it's not a factor … Just don't do anything stupid.'”
The Cowboys have made a habit of gaining turnovers in recent years, consistently ranking among the nation's best in takeaways. After falling off in 2012, they're back at it this season, leading the Big 12 at 2.7 takeaways per game and ranking No. 13 nationally with 19 total takeaways through seven games.
Big returns have provided highlights, too.
Before his interception at Iowa State, Gilbert had a 34-yard return of a pick in the team's 24-10 win over TCU.
In another win over Kansas State, Shaun Lewis' 24-yard interception return set up a key late field goal. And Daytawion Lowe's 72-yard interception return allowed OSU to run out the clock on a 33-29 verdict.
Ryan Simmons' 27-yard interception return led to a touchdown at UTSA.
Defensive scores aren't easy to come by and can't be counted on. Still, the Cowboys are coaching and playing to expect them.
And when they happen, it can turn a game upside down.
“You've got the turnover and turnovers are huge,” Spencer said. “But to score, that's even more demoralizing.
“I've been on the flip side of it and it's no fun. You've given up points and you weren't even on the field to do anything about it.”
While OSU rates among the Big 12's best at taking the ball away, the Red Raiders rank ninth in turnover margin and have committed 19 turnovers. The Cowboys maximized their turnovers at Iowa State. And now that Johnson and Gilbert have their TDs, the hunger to reach the end zone is spreading.
“That's what we've been talking about, scoring on defense,” Lowe said. “We finally got to pull that off, so hopefully we can keep it going.”