STILLWATER — Helmets strapped and game plan in place, Oklahoma State's offense readied to take the field against Kansas.
Then Justin Gilbert zipped through the Jayhawks, sprinting from his end zone to theirs with the opening kickoff, spotting the Cowboys with a 7-0 lead 13 seconds in Saturday in Stillwater.
“It's kind of like, ‘Well, I was ready to go. But I guess I'm OK with you scoring the touchdown,'” said OSU senior guard Brandon Webb.
“However we can put up points.”
However and whenever.
The points are welcome, especially in this season of inconsistent offense for the Cowboys. So via kickoff return, punt return, interception return or fumble return — and OSU has scored in each of those ways — bring it on.
“A month ago,” said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy, “one of the things I talked about with the team was we're going to have to find other ways to win football games until we can get a little bit better on offense.
“The guys made a commitment to the kicking game. Obviously, the defense has made a difference and been very impressive.”
OSU is flipping fields and games with bonus points and big returns.
Touchdowns, of course, are the ultimate. Gilbert's was the latest, one of five scored on special teams or defense this season. All came in wins.
* In a 59-3 rout of Lamar, Josh Stewart returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown.
* In a 24-10 win over TCU, Stewart sped a Big 12-record 94 yards for his second punt return score.
* In a 52-34 win at Iowa State, Gilbert jumped a pass route for a 31-yard interception return for a TD and Tyler Johnson romped 54 yards with a scooped fumble for a score.
“That's the greatest feeling,” said Parker Graham, another Cowboys offensive lineman. “We get up and think that we're going back out there, then the defense takes it to the house. We get to sit back down and enjoy some more Gatorade.”
And it's not just the touchdowns that are making a difference.
OSU leads the Big 12 and ranks No. 6 nationally in turnover margin at plus-1.2. Six of the team's 16 interceptions have been returned 24 yards or longer.
In the field position battle, the Cowboys are enjoying an average starting spot of their own 37, thanks to the takeaways, a kickoff return average of 25.54 that ranks No. 12 nationally and a punt return average of 15.12 that ranks No. 11 nationally.
“It alleviates pressure,” said OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. “Those things are huge momentum turns. We look for those and stress those.
“And it's great to be part of a team that has the ability to make those things happen.”
For an offense that has shuffled starters at quarterback and running back in an effort to spark the offense, and battled injuries at receiver all season, the outside influence couldn't be timelier. Not that long ago, the Cowboys scored and scored, often seemingly with ease.
Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon and Joseph Randle racked up yards and points and parlayed it all into fame.
Now, the Cowboys are enjoying a better marriage of offense, defense and special teams, with many happy returns during a five-game winning streak that has OSU back in the Big 12 race.
“We don't have Weeden and Blackmon like we used to, just to be able to throw it up and get a touchdown,” said linebacker Caleb Lavey. “We just have to have camaraderie and win as a team. And that's what we've been doing on both sides of the ball as well as the kicking game.
“As long as we can win all three phases, we shouldn't have a problem. They're all equally important now.”
OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer was planning ahead when Kansas kicker Ron Doherty got Saturday's game started.
And Gilbert got the Cowboys started.
“Everybody knows he has the big-play potential. But I wasn't ready for that,” Spencer said. “I was over there thinking about the first series, whatever. Then it's, ‘OK, here we go. We're out there. Here's our first possession after about 15 seconds.'
“But I love having that possession after we have seven on the board.”