I picked Oklahoma State to make the playoffs. One game into its 2020 season, that pick seems, let’s say, overly optimistic. The Cowboys survived Saturday, eking out a 16-7 win. A sloppy offseason for Oklahoma State produced a sloppy first game, but I’m not turning my back on that playoff pick just yet.
This team was always going to be dependent on health — mainly, its big three: Quarterback Spencer Sanders, running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace. They power an explosive, big-play offense. The health of the big three lasted all of two drives.
Part of the Oklahoma State breakout theory called on Sanders not only to be healthy but to be evolved and developed. Sanders was capable of big plays as a redshirt freshman in 2019 but he was turnover-prone with volatile play (16 touchdowns to 11 interceptions). Could Sanders take care of the football and be more consistent down to down? A 17-play, 76-yard scoring drive to open the Oklahoma State offensive season seemed to pass the test.
But then things got ugly. Sanders limped into the locker room and never returned. The keys to the offense were handed over to junior college transfer Ethan Bullock. Over the last two years, Mike Gundy’s quarterback room had been gutted by the transfers of Keondre Wudtee, John Kolar and Brendan Costello. All left the program as a young Sanders emerged as the starter. On Saturday the offense stalled and the other two heads of that offensive monster couldn’t get going.
Wallace, perhaps still getting his footing after an injury shortened his 2019 campaign, was bullied by Tulsa’s big cornerbacks. Hubbard couldn’t find any room to run behind a meek offensive line effort. Oklahoma State didn’t get another first down the rest of the first half.
The offensive struggles continued into the second half before Shane Illingworth, a big, strong-armed true freshman took over. Immediately the former four-star’s ability to drive the ball downfield started to unlock Wallace in the pass game. Two big plays to Wallace powered an 81-yard touchdown drive. A field goal drive followed as the run game started to open up behind Hubbard and LD Brown.
Behind the play of the true freshman quarterback, Oklahoma State survived. But all its fears were realized. The offense was sluggish without Sanders under center. The offensive line, which lost three starters in the spring due to various attrition, was worse than anticipated, allowing six sacks to a Tulsa defense that had 14 all season in 2019.
But it’s not all bad news. There’s another big factor in the Oklahoma State darkhorse playoff discussion and it’s that defense. It returns 10 of 11 starters off a solid unit last season. It returns even more talent coming off injury. There are players on the roster that were young and poised to take a step forward like standout edge rusher Trace Ford. If the offense may have overpromised and underperformed, the defense’s opening effort was the exact opposite.
Oklahoma State held Tulsa to 275 yards of offense, pitched a perfect game on third downs getting 12 stops in 12 attempts, tackled well in space and never seemed threatened on the perimeter against a team a big-armed quarterback.
If I had told you that Hubbard would have 93 yards rushing and a touchdown, Wallace would have 94 yards receiving on four catches and the Oklahoma State defense would hold Tulsa to seven points, you’d say Oklahoma State’s cycle-up season is right on track. But the game was much less confidence-inspiring. Still, after a Big 12 opening weekend that saw Kansas State, Kansas and Iowa State lose to Sun Belt programs, the Cowboys will gladly take 1-0, and so will the Big 12.