STILLWATER — In a defensive struggle defined by a handful of big plays, a crucial sequence went firmly in Oklahoma State’s favor and determined the outcome.
Early in the fourth quarter of a 28-23 victory Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium, the Cowboys stood tall at the goal line to hold Tulsa to a field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, LD Brown escaped for a 98-yard touchdown return, putting control in the home team’s hands for the remainder.
“The offense had been struggling moving the ball,” Brown said, “so just to get the momentum back and swing things back our way again, it just gave us that (oomph) that we needed.”
In the 76th meeting of the teams, OSU (2-0) prevailed for a ninth consecutive time in the series. For a third year in a row, TU (0-2) lost despite having a lead at halftime or being tied.
“This is my third time playing OSU since I’ve been here and all these games have been hard-fought,” Hurricane safety Bryson Powers said. “It’s great coming over here to get to play them every year, and it’s just frustrating playing a school so close and not be able to pull it out.”
Cowboy quarterback Spencer Sanders made his season debut after missing the opener and had a modest showing, throwing for 173 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He also led his team in rushing with 62 yards.
“Probably everybody in this building is going to tell me I played good, but I have to be honest with myself: I’ve got to play better,” Sanders said. “I feel like to a certain extent, I didn’t fulfill my duties.”
Both offenses struggled in the early going, with each totaling 40 yards and no points in the first quarter. Sanders connected with freshman Jaden Bray on two 20-yard passes on the same second-quarter drive, with one of the catches resulting in a touchdown.
On OSU’s next series, Sanders threw right to Hurricane linebacker Justin Wright, who raced 55 yards for a pick-six that gave TU momentum heading into halftime. Wright was among the nine players suspended in the first game, a loss to UC Davis that happened in part because of missing personnel.
“Great to have him back,” TU coach Philip Montgomery said. “Great to have a bunch of those guys back. I thought they came in and obviously affected the ball game, but a huge play right there.
“And that’s who Justin Wright is: He makes big plays, he plays downhill, he makes tackles. He did a nice job in the coverage right there, made a nice pick and then had the speed to take it down the sideline and do something with it.”
With first-year starting quarterback Davis Brin getting comfortable, the Hurricane offense started clicking in the third quarter. A drive featuring emerging playmaker Deneric Prince included a 40-yard pass to Sam Crawford Jr., and Prince scored on a 3-yard run.
In a pivotal moment early in the fourth quarter, a third-down pass to the end zone was ultimately ruled a touchdown catch by another freshman, OSU’s Bryson Green. That kept the score knotted until the TU drive that resulted in a short field goal, followed by Brown’s kick return.
“We talk about special teams and you never know when it can change the game,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “This changed the game, gave us a little bit of juice. Offensively, we’re very average right now and special teams is a big lift for us. We won a game playing really good defense and playing good special teams.”
The Cowboys also scored on their next series after another call went their way, a Sanders fumble that was touched by a TU player who was ruled out of bounds. Brin orchestrated a response that included an Anthony Watkins touchdown and a failed two-point conversion, and OSU recovered an onside kick and picked up a first down to run out the clock.
“We definitely had our opportunities,” Montgomery said. “Couple calls and big plays go our way and I think we come out of here with a win.”
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