The Cowboys got their season started with a win, but it wasn’t quite the comfortable drumming of an FCS opponent most expected to see. There were built-in caveats — like the Pokes missing six starters including QB1 Spencer Sanders — but there were also a few head-scratching issues come to light that could be reason for concern moving forward.
Let’s look at the best and the worst from the Cowboys’ survival of Missouri State.
Best Start: Shane and Tay
It seems like weeks ago now, but sophomore quarterback Shane Illingworth and senior wideout Tay Martin were clicking early and often on Saturday night. The Cowboys marched right down the field on their opening drive with the duo connecting on all four tosses between them for big plays of 18, 16 and 19 yards before Martin went straight Dez on this TD catch in the end zone, despite a defensive pass interference.
Martin appears to be the real deal and, along with a bevy of talented young receivers, the Pokes appear to be as talented as ever in their receiving corps.
Worst Play Call: Late Throws on Second and Third Down
Hindsight is 20/20 but OSU’s choice to throw it on back-to-back snaps late in the fourth quarter was a head-scratcher in real time. I’m not going full armchair play caller here, because I understand the decision based on how woeful the Cowboys were at running the ball (more on that below), but let’s look at decision based on the in-game situation.
The Cowboys were up just seven but had just gotten a stop on defense with 1:59 left and had a chance to run the clock out with a first down. Instead, they used just 25 seconds and gave the Bears a chance at a game-winning upset scoring drive. OSU was just one play away from what could have made for a disastrous season-opener.
“We just wanted to try and win the game,” said Mike Gundy after the game. “We should’ve made [those plays] and the game would’ve been over. I was the one that made the decision to throw and end the game. It didn’t work, so that was on me. They were overloading the run. That’s on me. It sure didn’t look good after it happened and they didn’t have to use timeouts. I was not too fired up about that.”
After LD Brown picked up five yards on first down, the Cowboys went to the air on consecutive snaps, both passes fell incomplete and the home team had to punt and lean on its defense to save the day once again. If Missouri State had scored, Bobby Petrino would have gone for two and this decision could have haunted Gundy and OSU for years.
Best Grab: Jaden Bray
Despite some stiff competition from Tay Martin, Brennan Presley and fellow true frosh Bryson Green, you have to hand it to Bray. Or you could just put it in his general vicinity and he’d haul it in himself.
On the first target of his college career, the rookie reeled in this impressive catch for a 36-yard gain and third down conversion. Bray also hauled in a 16-yard catch later in the second quarter for a total of 52 yards.
Worst Outing: OSU’s Ground Game
With all the enthusiasm OSU’s run game commanded over the offseason, the Cowboys fell flat on Saturday. Aside from a couple bright spots — two scores and a reverse by wide receiver Braydon Johnson that went for 13 yards (the Cowboys’ longest run play) — OSU’s line couldn’t generate any push against an FCS front and was one-dimensional, and therefore predictable and easy to stymie. That won’t bode well for OSU as the competition ramps up in the coming weeks.
The performance harkened back to OSU’s offense in 2015, when the Cowboys had to turn to a two-quarterback system and gimmicks to move the ball on the ground. The return of Spencer Sanders and his ability to burn defenses with his wheels should help, but Saturday night as a gut check for an offense that garnered so much buzz this offseason.
The 54 rushing yards and 1.9 yards per attempt were the lowest marks by any OSU team since that shocking loss to Central Michigan in 2016. At least the Cowboys didn’t suffer the big upset at home this time.
Best Performance: Malcolm Rodriguez
Several Cowboy defenders showed up big including Devin Harper and an all around solid performance from the Cowboys defensive line, but I’ve got to give the nod to M-Rod.
Rodriguez set a new career high in both tackles (15) and QB hurries (three) to go along with a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. And this won’t show up on the stat sheet but check out this takedown of 300-pound Bears O-lineman Sean Fitzgerald.
Worst Luck: OSU
The Cowboys’ 2020 campaign kicked off with an injury to Spencer Sanders and to several members of his offensive line. The team rallied but ongoing injury issues ultimately lowered the Pokes’ ceiling. The buzzworthy narrative about this 2021 Cowboys team hinged on avoiding that same injury bug. Someone didn’t knock on wood.
News came out on Sunday that star defensive end Trace Ford would miss the entire season after suffering another ACL tear. That came after Gundy noted on Saturday night that expected starters and contributors Logan Carter, Collin Clay and Blaine Green would be out for an extended time, as well.
It’s still too early to make season-long judgments about the Pokes, and Sanders should be back soon, but the hopes of making it very far into 2021 unbitten by the bug were dashed before the first snap. It remains to be seen how much that will affect the Cowboys’ potential.
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