Tramel: How else should 2020 season start for OSU football other than a defensive masterpiece?
STILLWATER — Shane Illingworth won the game in relief of Ethan Bullock. L.D. Brown looked better than Chuba Hubbard. OSU won the game with defense. Cowboy coaches raved about the atmosphere created by 14,688 fans in Boone Pickens Stadium.
2020, you haven’t lost your touch.
After an off-season of pandemic, Mike Gundy getting crossways with his players and administrators, and even a delay to this Tulsa season opener, what other script should we have expected for OSU’s season opener Saturday?
The Cowboys survived Tulsa 16-7, needing 13 fourth-quarter points to do it.
For most of the game, you’d have sworn the Golden Hurricane was part of the Sun Belt Conference, which last week cut the Big 12 to the quick, with three upset victories.
A loss by the 11th-ranked Cowboys would have been the biggest blow to the Big 12’s reputation. This is what averting disaster looks like.
Credit the Cowboy defense, which trotted onto the field 13 times and allowed only a solitary touchdown. There have been many a 52-36 shootout in recent OSU history. Sort of cool to see the Cowboys win a 16-7 grinder.
“It’s just what I’ve been selling to them,” OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “To be a great defense, to be a contributor to a championship team, you can’t be one-sided. Regardless of how the offense does, we have to learn how to win games on defense. You saw that today.”
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With quarterback Spencer Sanders sidelined late in the first quarter, the OSU offense sputtered. Sputtered isn’t the right word. Collapsed is the right word.
Junior-college transfer quarterback Ethan Bullock looked ill-equipped to play Big 12 football. Slow afoot, with OSU coaches clearly reluctant to let Bullock fling the ball downfield.
The social-media crowd called for true freshman Illingworth, but that’s only because it forgot that tight end Jelani Woods came here as a quarterback and that Gunnar Gundy could quickly join the team.
Eventually, Illingworth indeed was summoned, he threw two jump balls that superstar Tylan Wallace turned into big plays and OSU somehow had a 10-7 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
OSU’s defense had kept the Cowboys in the game and was needed to win it. Win it they did, holding Tulsa to a (missed) field-goal attempt despite first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, a fourth-down sack that effectively ended the game and finally a last-play interception by Kolby Harvell-Peel, a prize for a job well done.
In Big 12 football, all the pressure is on the offense, to score every possession, because the opponent is likely to. But Saturday, Knowles admitted the pressure was on the defense, because for much of this game, just a little slippage against veteran Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith could have doomed the Cowboys.
But OSU safety Tre Sterling wasn’t buying the pressure part, other than on Knowles, because “his job’s on the line. But our defense and the players, even if the score is 58-0, we expect to go up there and lay a goose egg. No matter what yard line, down situation, we expect to get a stop. That’s what great defenses do, and I believe we’re a great defense.”
I don’t know if this OSU defense is great, but this certainly was a fabulous start.
Of course, the Cowboys aren’t going anywhere unless Sanders returns healthy. Having a quarterback room so void of depth is bewildering and damning of Gundy. You’ve got to have better opening-day options than Bullock and Illingworth.
Without Sanders, future foes will double-team Wallace, load up against the run and make life miserable for Hubbard (93 yards on 27 carries), who was supplemented by Brown (42 yards on eight carries).
But for now, the Cowboys survived.
“When the offense gets going, and it will, you’re going to have the opportunity to be great as a team,” Knowles said. “That’s what I told ‘em at halftime, I’m glad you feel the pressure, because it is in you. Step up and win the game on defense.”
And so the Cowboys did. A perfect plot for the crazy year of 2020.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.