STILLWATER – Oklahoma State defensive end Nigel Nicholas stormed in on TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, stripping the ball away just as he attempted to pass, setting off his celebration routine, which was more strut than dance.
“Improv,” Nicholas said, admitting to not being fully prepared for the moment.
But there was work to be done, with the ball on the ground, just waiting to be had.
“I lost track of the ball, I couldn't find it,” Nicholas said, “so I started celebrating with Calvin Barnett. And I heard coach (Mike) Gundy say, ‘Pick it up!' I said, ‘Pick what up?'
“Then I seen it, it was right there. So I picked it up and started running.”
Nicholas rumbled for 22 yards, before finally being dragged down by Boykin.
“I was so excited I couldn't make a good move on the quarterback,” Nicholas said. “But a turnover is pretty good in itself.”
Once the lifeblood of the Cowboys defense, turnovers have been hard to come by this season, with OSU ranking No. 101 nationally with just six takeaways entering Saturday's game against the Horned Frogs.
Any turnover is all good.
Maybe the Pokes are rediscovering their takeaway vibe, with three Saturday in a 36-14 romp, following the two they swiped from Iowa State in last week's win.
Both dominant defensive efforts, each marked by plays made, rather than big plays surrendered.
Nicholas' strip provided one such statement, with TCU at the Cowboys 20, trying to work its way back into a game that OSU led 26-14 in the fourth quarter.
Late in the third quarter, after the Cowboys had taken their first lead, 16-14 on Jeremy Smith's 1-yard scoring run, Lyndell Johnson struck for another. With the Horned Frogs facing third-and-2 from the OSU 11, the hybrid linebacker/safety blew past a would-be block to drop TCU back B.J. Catalon for a 3-yard loss. And a moment later, Jaden Oberkrom missed on a 31-yard field goal try.
“We were thinking they were going to do a quarterback sneak,” Johnson said. “The tight end came, I shed him, knifed up underneath and made the tackle.”
The Cowboys closed out the game with two interceptions, as Daytawion Lowe and Zack Craig picked passes in the final minutes.
And after some shaky performances earlier this season, including defensive duds in losses to Arizona and Texas, OSU's D is finally playing like the unit propped up as a difference-maker in the preseason.
For the first time in the Big 12 era and the first time overall since 1986, the Cowboys have held three straight conference opponents to less than 20 points.
“We're healthy now,” Gundy said. “We've got some guys back. We were beat up early in the season at key spots.”
Now the Cowboys are doing the beating up – just in time for next week's visit to No. 3 Kansas State.
OSU shut out the Cyclones on their final 11 possessions and blanked the Frogs on their final 10. After a decent start, TCU managed just 223 yards over the final three quarters. And for the game, the Frogs converted just 2 of 14 third downs.
“Early in the season, we gave up some big plays,” said linebacker Alex Elkins. “And it's not that we had a bad defense, we just didn't have all 11 players hitting on all cylinders.
“We knew we had to come out here and change that. And everything we've done up to this point is worth it.”