STILLWATER — They gathered on the green turf inside Boone Pickens Stadium, coming together as separate entities in becoming one.
A blessed union, of sorts.
Special teams, too.
Coaches regularly talk about the vital marriage between offense and defense, the ability to play off one another or to pick up each other up in times of distress.
For Oklahoma State, the marriage has seldom been so smooth.
These past two Saturdays especially, the Cowboys can claim a shared responsibility for handling the chores that were Iowa State and TCU. And together, offense and defense made it unexpectedly easy work.
Unexpected, perhaps, because the OSU defense has seldom felt — nor been treated by outsiders — like an equal partner.
“So many times before when I've been on this team, and we won the game, it was like the offense scored a lot of points and the defense was just out there,” said senior defensive end Cooper Bassett. “The defense didn't make many plays.
“The past two weeks, for the defense to really more than hold its own, with two second-half shutouts, force some turnovers, it's made it more fun. It's made it to where on the sidelines, instead of trying to rally the troops and say, ‘All right, let's make a play,' we're saying, ‘Keep making plays. Keep rolling.'”
This, after all, is who the Cowboys thought they were: A defense to trust and lean on until a transitioning offense found solid footing.
But breakdowns in losses to Arizona and Texas painted OSU's defense as the same old, same old — which wasn't good. Fortunately, through the challenges of rampant injuries and revolving rookie quarterbacks, the Cowboys' offense has kept rolling, ranking No. 1 nationally in total offense and No. 6 in scoring.
Special teams have always been a constant, with Quinn Sharp and Co. usually controlling the kicking game.
Now the defense, with improved health and improved play, seems capable of carrying its weight in the relationship.
For the first time since 1986, OSU has held three straight conference foes to fewer than 20 points. And the Cowboys have shown signs of dominance, shutting out the Cyclones on their final 11 possessions and blanking the Horned Frogs on their final 10.
In a broader take, the OSU defense has allowed scores on just five of the last 42 enemy possessions.
A unit once tormented on third down, OSU is now getting off the field, rising to No. 22 nationally in third-down conversion percentage defense. For comparison purposes: LSU is at No. 16, Stanford 19, Clemson 25 and Southern Cal 30. Further down the chart: Notre Dame at 55, Oklahoma 65 and Kansas State 69.
“We were just kind of sick of the criticism,” said Cowboys linebacker Alex Elkins. “We knew what we had. And we knew what kind of talent we had on our side of the ball. We just weren't hitting on all cylinders like we knew we could.
“As the weeks have gone by, we've realized that if we're going to play up to our potential, we need to do it right now. We can't wait. If we're going to control our own destiny, we have to start now. And we've done that. We're picking it up, and our confidence is boosted.”
OSU's outlook is boosted, too, even with a trip to No. 2 Kansas State looming next on Saturday.
Of course, in Manhattan, we'll find out if it's a marriage built to last. The Wildcats boast the Heisman front-runner in quarterback Collin Klein and have averaged 43.4 points in racing to a 5-0 record in Big 12 play.
“We're not there yet; we're kind of a work in progress,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Bill Young. “The turnovers are coming, and hopefully a whole lot more of them are on the way. It'll be a critical aspect in the game Saturday.”
A year ago, the defense gathered turnovers like Halloween treats, leading the country with a combined 44 takeaways. Not as opportunistic this season, the Cowboys are instead succeeding with more conventional stops.
“Being able to go down the sideline and pat the offense on the butt and say, ‘We'll get the ball back for you guys,' and to do it — it's just so fun,” Bassett said. “And we get so much satisfaction out of it.
“We've done a great job so far, offense and defense sharing the load, carrying the burden together. Whatever it takes to win is what matters. I think the way our defense has been playing, it's going to help give our offense a chance to get the win.”