STILLWATER, Okla. – If there was one aspect No. 11 Oklahoma State didn't excel at during its first two games, it was special teams.
After making it a point of emphasis in practice, however, that is no longer an area of concern for the Cowboys (3-0), who defeated Mississippi State and UTSA without much of a contribution from its special teams units.
In their 59-3 victory over Lamar last Saturday, freshman Ben Grogan made his first career field goal, a 39-yarder, after missing his previous attempt against Mississippi State, and Josh Stewart gained 114 yards and scored a touchdown on three punt returns. Stewart was named Big 12 special teams player of the week.
"We worked all week hard on that punt return, and took it serious every rep we got, and it worked out just like we practiced it," said Stewart, a junior who also gained a team-high 49 yards on three receptions. "That's what happens when you're coachable and as a returner, knowing you have blockers that are going to block for you, it makes it easier on me. Basically, I look for a hole, I see it and I hit it."
Stewart's first big return was for 41 yards late in the second quarter, running it back to the Lamar 16-yard line. Three plays later, Jeremy Smith scored on a 1-yard run for a 31-0 lead. Then, early in the third quarter, Stewart raced 67 yards for the first return touchdown of his college career, increasing the Oklahoma State advantage to 38-3.
On the only Lamar kickoff of the contest, Justin Gilbert returned a short kick 21 yards to the Cowboys' 44-yard line.
"I thought we improved some in our return game," coach Mike Gundy said. "We worked considerably on our return game and it benefited us."
Perhaps the biggest acknowledgement of Stewart's ability to break loose was the fact that Lamar's Kollin Kahler began directing his punts toward the sidelines.
"That's a returner's dream, to not kick it to them because they're afraid you're going to return it," said Stewart, who had totaled just 14 yards on three punt returns the first two games. "That's exciting. We're excited to get some more punts now."
Stewart credited Cowboys receivers coach Jason Ray with helping to keep his approach simple and his teammates for creating seams for him to dart through.
"(Ray) would say, 'Just get up field, make one move and go,' and I tried my best to do that," Stewart said. "Sometimes it got a little crowded so I had to make an extra move, just basically find the open hole, and that's what I did. All credit goes to the blockers, they did a great job of giving me the opportunity to see that hole."
Stewart, who averaged 20.1 yards on 13 kickoff returns in 2011 as a freshman, didn't return his first punt until last year's Heart of Dallas Bowl, when he set up a touchdown with a 64-yard return in OSU's 58-14 win over Purdue.
With that experience under his belt, returning punts became one of his focus points as he trained during the offseason.
"When I have the ball in my hand, I always try to make a play and go hard," said Stewart, who also leads Oklahoma State this year with 12 receptions and 185 yards, along with a touchdown. "For me, punt returning, getting better at it was just catching the ball. I know once I catch the ball, I can make guys miss. So all offseason and leading up to the first game, I was just practicing my catching ability so I can run, and I've gotten better."
With the Cowboys enjoying a bye week before visiting West Virginia on Sept. 28 to start conference play, having a regular threat on punts and kickoff returns will be a valuable asset.
"As a punt return unit, we feel we're getting good and feeling comfortable with it," Stewart said. "We're excited about our special teams units this year."