It wasn’t just a typical case of Mike Gundy shying away from a true freshman quarterback taking the field when starter Spencer Sanders went out on the first play of the second drive during Saturday’s season opener against Tulsa.
He wasn’t avoiding going to a highly-recruited, green QB because he’d see it fail before in the past decade. Remember Wes Lunt?
The Oklahoma State football coach went to junior college transfer Ethan Bullock for one reason. He’d actually been on the practice field for the past two weeks.
It was discovered after the game – though Cowboy radio voice Dave Hunziker tweeted out mid-game a hint at the reasoning – when Gundy told the media that true freshman signal-caller Shane Illingworth had be out for the past two weeks due to contact tracing.
So it was a simple decision – Bullock had the reps to be prepared for being thrown into his first Division I football game.
But Gundy, his offensive coaching staff and Cowboy fans learned a valuable lesson Saturday. Sometimes it's not the preparation that fosters success, sometimes it's pure moxie.
Bullock may have seemed better prepared due to getting the work in practice, but it didn’t show when he stepped onto the field in front of nearly 15,000 fans.
The first three drives with the more “experienced” quarterback resulted in three-and-outs. And the fourth, after being set up with great field position by punt return Dillon Stoner, was a turnover on downs in four straight plays.
Oklahoma State couldn’t get a first down behind Bullock until the final seconds of the first half.
And it was the same to start the second half.
The Bullock-led offense had back-to-back punts, and at the first sign of possible life for the offense – with the Cowboys still trailing 7-3 – the junior college transfer threw an interception that star receiver Tylan Wallace was just as much to blame for because he was visibly frustrated by the Tulsa defense and failed to turn in time to see the incoming pass.
It was enough for Gundy and offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn.
Oklahoma State needed a shot in the arm, even if that arm hadn’t thrown a pass in practice since before the Tulsa game was delayed a week.
“I was very comfortable (going to Illingworth),” Dunn said. “He was really, really good, all the way up until we didn't have him for a couple of weeks. So I had no issues with him going in. He's a great pocket passer, he's very, very poised. He’s going to be a heck of a player.”
And that shot came immediately when Dunn called up a play to ease the frustration of his All-American caliber receiver.
While it wasn’t the prettiest of passes, it was effective. Because unlike Bullock, Illingworth actually threw it after about two steps back.
They didn’t want him to read the defense. They didn’t want him to have to think in his first snap of Division I football. They just wanted him to chuck it up and let Wallace showcase why NFL Draft expert Todd McShay proclaimed on the ESPN broadcast that OSU’s senior receiver is the most physical receiver in college football.
With a Tulsa defender trying to drag him down – similar to the game plan a year ago in Tulsa – Wallace hauled in the 24-yard pass. And suddenly, the anemic offense was rolling under Illingworth.
The pair would connect again on the drive for a 36-yard gain down to the Tulsa 3-yard line – the closest the Cowboys got to the end zone the entire game (including when Sanders was in for the opening drive).
And when Chuba Hubbard scored the first touchdown of the season on the very next play, several on the OSU offensive line didn’t chase down the Canadian great to celebrate. They turned around to Illingworth to congratulate him on putting together a touchdown drive on his first college possession.
He wouldn’t light up the stat sheet – but honestly, nobody did for OSU on Saturday. He wouldn’t even complete a handful of passes for the game – going 4 of 5 for 74 yards.
But in a quarter and change of play, he would keep any championship aspirations alive for the Cowboy team that had stars Wallace and Hubbard skipping on the NFL with those hopes being at the forefront.
Gundy wasn’t sure after the game on the severity of Sanders’ injury, and it may be as simply as a few days rest for him to be ready for the Big 12 Conference opener against West Virginia.
But if Sanders is forced to miss games – either now or down the road – Oklahoma State’s offense looks well in hand with a rookie QB that even the starting quarterback had admiration for mid-game.
“Turn me up (Wallace), excellent execution (Illingworth)!!” Sanders tweeted after the scoring drive.
Oklahoma State and Gundy still have a shot at the College Football Playoffs this year. And while Saturday it was in large part due to the defense holding Tulsa to seven points, if Illingworth hadn’t have stepped forward and delivered for the offense, those seven would have been enough to derail any chance at a dream season before it really even started.
Jason Elmquist is sports editor of The Stillwater News Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.