STILLWATER – Nigel Nicholas heard the talk on ESPN. Oklahoma State can score, but can the Cowboys stop anybody?
“They were talking bad about our defense,” said Nicholas.
Can't blame ESPN or anyone else. The Cowboys haven't played great defense for decades. Even acceptable defense comes and goes.
Thursday night, it came. OSU routed Arizona 37-14 at Boone Pickens Stadium, and forget the numbers in the box score. Pay no attention to Arizona's 439 total yards and 21 first downs.
The Cowboys shut out Arizona in the first half, played mostly solid defense in the second half and watch out, folks. If OSU plays defense like this, the Cowboy season can be just as special as State fans have hoped.
Because we know OSU will score. On a night when Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon put on their regular highlight show, and tailback Joe Randle again showed he's ready to join the act, the most impressive development was defense.
The Cowboys did their Pac-12 admission hopes no favors. The longer this game went, the more votes they lost. No one out West wants any piece of an OSU team sporting this offense with a defense that puts up a fight.
Arizona had 11 possessions and managed but two touchdowns. OSU's first-team defense now has given up three TDs in its last three games, going back to a 36-10 smackdown of 'Zona in the Alamo Bowl last December.
Arizona coach Mike Stoops called the Cowboys a “much better team, a more complete team this year than they were a year ago. They're legit.”
Arizona can't run the ball at all and was missing its star receiver, Juron Criner, but Nick Foles is a big-time quarterback who had other quality receiving threats. Foles threw for more yards (398) than did Weeden, on two fewer passes and five fewer completions.
But OSU turned away the Wildcats from the end zone. By the time Arizona scored, midway through the third quarter, the game was largely over.
“The defense played really well,” Mike Gundy said. “For the most part, we were in the right spot. I thought we tackled well again. We really got guys down that were in space. Their quarterback is a good player. He moves around and makes plays, and he's hard to get your hands on.”
OSU's best moment came late in the first half, leading 21-0. 'Zona had second-and-6 from the OSU 8-yard line. But two runs produced just three yards total, then safety Daytawion Lowe knocked down Foles' pass in the end zone.
After the game, Lowe couldn't even remember the play. But in the trenches, Nicholas knew what it meant.
“I just remember having two linemen on me and hearing (linebacker) Shaun (Lewis) yell, ‘Nope, they didn't get it,'” Nicholas said. “I couldn't help but get crunk.”
Said safety Markelle Martin: “You don't get to do that every game. That was a gutcheck.”
Gundy admitted after the game that his defense might be a little better than he thought. It's not any kind of historic defense; no nickname is headed these guys' way.
But if they can play tough and smart and disciplined (only one penalty, an offsides, Thursday night), they can hold opponents down and give Weeden and Co. plenty of elbow room to win with ease.
“Our defense played great,” Weeden said. “I looked up at the end of the third quarter, maybe the beginning of the fourth, and they had like 16 yards rushing. That's pretty impressive … when they play like that ... that's nice as an offense because you can get in a rhythm.”
This was a change for OSU on the marquee stage of Thursday night. In 2009 and 2010, the black-clad Cowboys beat Colorado and Texas A&M in high-scoring affairs with offensive rallies.
No such rally was necessary against Arizona, because the defense came to play.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.