LD Brown had a long distance to cover, but he realized how he could avoid traffic.

He just had to hurry to the left side of the field.

Brown, a super senior running back on the Oklahoma State football team, secured the ball at the 2-yardline near the right corner, spotted a gap and sprinted into space as he approached the left sideline. While his teammates pushed Tulsa rivals away from him, Brown thundered toward the end zone, zooming past kicker Zack Long and crossing the goal line.

The OSU bench and home crowd erupted when Brown returned a kickoff for the longest touchdown of the game, turning the tide of a close, rocky matchup in the fourth quarter. For the second week in a row, the Cowboys squeezed out a tough nonconference victory, this time defeating Tulsa, 28-23, Saturday afternoon at Boone Pickens Stadium.

Although Spencer Sanders returned from COVID-19 protocol, retaking the starting spot in place of sophomore Shane Illingworth, offensive mishaps and an often quiet run game continued to stifle OSU’s momentum at times. After the Cowboys struggled to create consistent progress against Tulsa, Brown’s 98-yard kickoff return touchdown ignited a late spark.

“I was screaming the whole way,” offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn said. “...That was huge. That was such a momentum change for us, a massive play.”

The Golden Hurricane led 17-14 when Brown took the field for the kickoff, but his touchdown gave OSU a 21-17 advantage with 10:41 left. The Cowboys stayed in front for the rest of the game.

Brown’s speedy trip to the end zone was OSU’s longest kickoff return since Tyreek Hill’s 99-yard touchdown against Kansas in 2014, and Brown is now tied for the seventh-longest kickoff return in Cowboy history. Redshirt junior safety Kanion Williams allowed Brown to execute the play, coming up with a big block so Brown had the security he needed to score.

“Shout-out to Kanion Williams – No. 12 – man,” Brown said. “... All those blocks by everybody just doing their job, and winning their one-on-one, and I just took it home.”

Running back Jaylen Warren added a cushion to the lead Brown provided.

With 4:59 left, Warren adeptly navigated a maze of defenders with a series of tricky maneuvers that allowed him to reach the end zone on an 11-yard scamper. Although the Cowboys were restricted to 99 rushing yards, Warren created some optimism around the run game.

“He’s shown that through fall camp, and he showed it again today on the field,” Dunn said. “He deserves the carries this game. He’s playing well for us. He’s playing downhill.”

The Cowboys were up 28-17 after Warren’s touchdown, and though Tulsa made one final comeback attempt with Anthony Watkins’ rushing touchdown, it wasn’t enough to give the Golden Hurricane a victory.

For most of the game, the outcome hadn’t been so clear.

OSU’s offense endured a difficult first half. Right guard Cole Birmingham missed a block on OSU’s first drive, and Tulsa defensive end Anthony Goodlow capitalized on the blunder, sacking Sanders for a loss of 10 yards to force a punt. The Cowboys didn’t score until the second quarter, when Sanders connected with freshman Jaden Bray for a 26-yard touchdown catch.

They didn’t hold their 7-0 lead for long – with no Cowboy receiver nearby, Sanders tossed a pass that landed straight into the hands of linebacker Justin Wright, who carried it 55 yards for a touchdown with 1:44 until halftime. With Tay Martin out because of an aggravated injury after two plays, Sanders worked with a young group of receivers who showed their potential, but stringing together consistent momentum was tough.

“As we try to grow up a little bit on offense and get some young players developed and kind of work through a few things,” Gundy said, “we need to come together as coaches and kind of figure out, try to make a decision on really who we are offensively right now with our personnel, and what direction to go to give us the best chance to score some more points.”

In his first game of the season, Sanders went 15 for 26 for 173 passing yards and two touchdowns. Sanders said regardless of any compliment he might receive from people around him, he thinks he needs to improve.

“I’m gonna be honest with myself, I gotta play better, not only just for me but for the team and for the coaches, Coach Dunn, Coach Gundy and Coach Rattay,” Sanders said. “I know I can do it.”

Throughout OSU’s ups and downs, the good news for the Cowboys was that Tulsa’s offense had little steam.

The Golden Hurricane’s only points before halftime came from Wright’s defensive score, and the Cowboys limited quarterback Davis Brin to 44 first-half passing yards. It was a defensive clash, and OSU prevailed, maintaining its identity as a dominant third-down defense. Tulsa converted on only four of its 13 third downs, or 30.8 percent.

The Cowboys had a few defensive slip-ups – for example, Jason Taylor II’s interception return for a touchdown was called back because of a holding penalty on Tanner McCalister – but once again, the defense gave OSU a chance to make something happen.

The turnaround started with Brown’s kickoff return.

With 116 kick return yards from Brown and 34 punt return yards from Brennan Presley, special teams provided a much-needed advantage for the Cowboys.

“... We got a whole football field out of special teams,” Gundy said. “That was the difference in this game.”

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