In a lot of ways, Oklahoma State has been one of the quintessential teams in the Big 12 Conference.
Led by a charismatic coach in Mike Gundy, the Cowboys have relied heavily on their offensive attack to put as many points as possible on the board with the help some star players, while their opponents rush and throw to do the same.
That wasn’t exactly how the 15th-ranked Cowboys’ season opener against Tulsa played out, however. After an injury to quarterback Spencer Sanders early in the contest, Oklahoma State had to rely on the play of their defense to keep their heads above water — a major change of pace for Gundy and his team.
“Everybody has held their breath to see who gets the ball last, whoever gets the ball last scores and the game’s over,” said Gundy of Big 12 play in recent years. “I felt more comfortable in this game than I have in a number of years because I felt we were stoning them on defense.”
The Cowboys ended up taking the victory by a score of 16-7, and we learned a lot about them in the process:
Defense wins football games
Oklahoma State’s defense returns a lot of experience — 10 starters, to be exact — and that showed against Tulsa on Saturday.
“This is maybe the first time since Gundy’s been the coach that they’ve got experience and depth on that side of the football,” said Brian Brinkley, who covers the Cowboys as the sports director for KFOR. “And we saw it on Saturday.”
Oklahoma State held Tulsa to 277 yards and stopped them 7 times behind the line of scrimmage, including a sack by safety Malcolm Rodriguez.
Most poignant of their defensive statistics, however, was their third down efficiency — the Cowboys didn’t let Tulsa move the chains even once on third down.
“They definitely won that game on Saturday with how they played on [the defensive] side of the ball,” Brinkley added.
“Musical chairs” on offense
There’s no doubt Oklahoma State has some talent on their offense. Heisman candidate running back Chuba Hubbard is the marquee skill player for the Cowboys, with threats on the outside like Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner making their returns for another season.
As a unit, though, their offense drew some concerns after their season opener.
“I was a little surprised with how inefficient Oklahoma State was on offense,” Brinkley said.
There are a few reasons for their lackluster performance of just 16 points and 284 yards. First, of course, Sanders’s injury early in the contest did a good bit to throw the offensive rhythm off. Gundy was forced to again make a change at quarterback from Ethan Bullock to Shane Illingworth — a true freshman.
The wacky offseason also made it difficult to evaluate talent — and this goes for both skill and line positions. This forced Gundy to move players all over the offense, especially on the offensive line.
“We were just below average based on musical chairs. It’s extremely difficult,” Gundy said. “You can call it like you want, but when you move people around that much, the continuity is difficult.”
Gundy even said picking a backup quarterback was difficult — and that showed in Saturday’s game.
The big question mark
Speaking of the quarterback position, there’s a big, fat question mark on that spot of the depth chart at the moment. Sanders, Oklahoma State’s normal starter, went off in the first quarter with an injury to his ankle.
“We booted him up, we’ll take it off on Tuesday then put him out [on the practice field] Wednesday and go from there,” Gundy said in his Monday media session.
Gundy added that his injury was not major — but he was not ready to name a replacement in case he was not able to play against West Virginia.
The other two options — Illingworth and Bullock — both got time against Tulsa, and it appeared Illingworth had a slight edge on Bullock. While Illingworth, a true freshman, threw just five passes, he completed four of them for 79 yards, the redshirt junior Bullock went 8-of-13 for 41 yards and a pick.
“I thought [Illingworth] was composed and he executed very well….He can handle the situation,” Gundy said. “I don’t know that we could have asked him to do more than he did so we were pleased with his play.”
If Sanders misses this contest, this will be the second straight season in which the redshirt sophomore has missed the matchup against West Virginia.