STILLWATER — The Cowboys flirted with disaster Saturday night, but start the 2021 season off 1-0.
Oklahoma State beat FCS Missouri State 23-16 in Boone Pickens Stadium. The Cowboys were favored by nearly 40 points but entered without starting quarterback Spencer Sanders because of COVID protocol. Here are 10 thoughts from a wacky opening night in Stillwater.
1. An Ugly End to an Ugly Half of an Ugly Game
In the last 3:06 of OSU’s game against an FCS team the Cowboys:
- Allowed Missouri State to score to get within 7 points;
- Lost a starting safety to a targeting call;
- Allowed perhaps the world’s longest successful onside kick, giving Missouri State the ball back at OSU’s 16;
- Had a 25-second drive with a lead and under two minutes to play while forcing only one timeout.
It wasn’t pretty.
The 25-second drive was perhaps the most glaring issue. The Pokes got the ball back with 1:59 to play. The drive started with a 5-yard LD Brown run on first down. After a timeout, OSU took a shot downfield, but Shane Illingworth and Bryson Green were unable to connect, stopping the clock. Then on third down, Illingworth had Braydon Johnson open at the sticks, but the two had some miscommunication as to when the route was supposed to stop. The clock stopped again with the incompletion, and Missouri State got to keep two timeouts and get the ball back.
“We just wanted to try to win the game,” Gundy said. “We should’ve. We should’ve made that play. I’m not blaming anybody, but we should’ve made that throw, made that catch and the game would’ve been over. We didn’t get it done.
“I was the one that made the decision — let’s go ahead and throw it and end the game — and it didn’t work. So, that’s on me, but based on the way they were structured defensively, we had throws and we had open guys because they’re overloading the run. We had guys, we just didn’t hit them. So, that’s on me for throwing it. Sure didn’t look very good after it happened, and they didn’t have to use timeouts. I was not too fired up about that.”
In the end, the Cowboys defense saved the day. The record books will remember OSU starting this season 1-0, but in the short term, it was a concerning start to the Cowboys’ 2021 season.
2. Illingworth Started Hot, Cooled
There is a portion of OSU’s fanbase that thinks Illingworth should start ahead of Spencer Sanders, and that portion was probably foaming at the mouth at halftime.
Illingworth went into the locker room at halftime having thrown for 205 yards and a touchdown, but most importantly a 20-3 lead.
Illingworth finished with 315 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but the Cowboys mustered only 3 points in the second half. It can’t all be put at Illingworth’s feet. He had little run support. OSU running backs finished with just 53 rushing yards.
3. Run Game Woes
OSU’s four-headed running back stable has garnered myriad headlines entering the season, but Game 1 was a dud.
LD Brown got a majority of the work, carrying the ball 15 times where he had 30 yards and a touchdown. Jaylen Warren was the clear RB2, toting the rock six times for nine yards and a touchdown. Dezmon Jackson didn’t get a carry until the second half. He looked good when he got the ball, but he fumbled on his third carry and didn’t get another. Then Dominic Richardson, a fan favorite having grown up in Oklahoma, didn’t get a carry.
It was an odd performance for OSU’s revamped offensive line in that the unit seemed to pass protect well. Illingworth was sacked just once, but there wasn’t hardly anywhere to go for the Cowboys’ backs. There’s also probably some truth in the idea that Missouri State sold out to stop the run with the second string quarterback behind center.
“Shoot, I’ll take the blame for it,” OSU offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn said. “We have to do a better job of setting the schemes — whatever it is. Whatever we have to do to get those guys to block it, run it, execute it. That falls on me.”
4. Tay Martin Was As Advertised
Gundy hasn’t shied away from praising Tay Martin’s ability, and it didn’t take long to find out why.
With Tylan Wallace now in Baltimore, there was a wonder as to whether OSU would spread the love in the passing game more in 2021. After the Cowboys’ first possession, it didn’t look like it. In that series, Martin had four catches, 58 yards and the first touchdown of the Cowboys’ season on a back shoulder fade.
Martin picked up a bit of an injury in the second quarter but returned after halftime to finish with six catches, 107 yards and the score in his first game as a Cowboy starter.
5. Kasey Dunn’s Reload
When Martin was sidelined with injury in the first half, OSU was primarily using a receiving lineup of true freshman Bryson Green, true freshman Jaden Bray and sophomore Brennan Presley.
The core of Wallace, Dillon Stoner and Landon Wolf is gone after holding down spots for seemingly forever, and it seems as if Dunn has found his new core for years to come.
Presley had four catches for 68 yards. Bray had two catches for 52 yards. Green had three catches for 41 yards. And that young group was missing Blaine Green, who was supposed to start over his twin brother, and John Paul Richardson.
More of a known quantity, Presley was probably the most impressive objectively, but Bray was a playmaker. He sure as heck didn’t look like a true freshman during his first college catch.
6. Jim Knowles Lives in His Hopes, Not His Fears
With less than a minute to play, Missouri State had the ball on OSU’s 26. It was third down, and OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles sent seven guys after the quarterback, leaving only four in coverage.
It worked. Freshman defensive end Collin Oliver and sophomore corner Jabbar Muhammad got to Missouri State quarterback Jason Shelley for a combined sack. Knowles sent pressure again on the Bears’ fourth-down attempt, and Devin Harper and Brock Martin combined for a sack to ice things out.
Some would’ve played it safe, staying in coverage hoping to knock down a ball. But Knowles attacked. It was exhilarating. It was risky. It was fun.
“You gotta live in your hopes, not in your fears,” Knowles said. “You always have to be able to present to the offense the ability that we have in our system. We have the ability to send every single guy.”
7. Defensive Platoon Swaps
Knowles let things fly early with personnel.
After starting the game as expected, Knowles started rolling guys in over the next few series. Oliver got in. Aden Kelley got in. Ben Kopenski got in. He was mixing and matching corners. Young linebackers Kamryn Farrar and Mason Cobb recorded sacks.
It was all apart of Knowles’ plan, and the stock continues to soar for Cowboys’ fourth-year defensive coordinator.
“You want to get them in early,” Knowles said. “You want to get their feet wet before it’s crunch time. You want to get them a taste of the play and the action. You want to be able to keep your guys fresh. The more depth you can build early in the season, you think about every rep they take now how much better they’ll be at the end of the year.”
8. Special Teams Had Up and Down Moments
Special teams-wise, this game will probably be most remembered Missouri State beating the Cowboys to a kickoff down field late in the game, but there were some bright spots for the Cowboys in the return game.
Presley in particular showed sparks. It felt like he had the most potential to run a kick back since Tyreek Hill was putting egg on Bob Stoops’ face.
Presley didn’t call for one fair catch, something that has been a complaint from the OSU fanbase in the past that too many fair catches were being called. His most electric return came in the second half when he took a kickoff off the bounce in the end zone. He made a 36-yard return and was just a block or two from streaking down the field.
Presley is already a fan favorite. The first time he does house a return, the place is going to go bonkers.
9. A Rough Week for Oklahoma College Football
The state’s three Division-I football teams were supposed to roll through Week 1 of the college football season, but enter Sunday 2-1, with a combined score of 80-70.
Tulsa lost to an FCS team in UC Davis, OSU flirted with losing to an FCS team and OU, the No. 2 team in the country, beat a displaced Tulane squad 40-35.
The state is guaranteed another loss next week with the Pokes playing Tulsa. After Tulsa lost Thursday, it seemed like a cakewalk for OSU, but the Cowboys have a lot to figure out between now and then.
10. Football Is Back
There was some bad football played in Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday night, but 50,807 were there to watch it.
Dunn made a point to say how cool it was going through The Walk after his postgame presser. Tailgates were scattered around Stillwater. Bellowing boos rang down at refs for calls against the home team. It was awesome.
No, OSU didn’t play particularly well, but in this trying time in human history, it was fun to have a distraction, a feel of normalcy.
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