Carlson: Injuries made for tough grading curve for OSU football, but Spencer Sanders, adjustments scored high marks
Winning in Manhattan is never easy, but beating Kansas State on its home turf becomes all the more difficult when you have all sorts of players injured. That was the situation facing Oklahoma State on Saturday. It made for some rough patches, but in a 20-18 victory, there was plenty of good. The grades reflect that.
Spencer Sanders: B
A week after a three-turnover game, the OSU quarterback was the steadying force on offense. Even though he wasn't great throwing the ball — 14-of-23 for 108 yards — he was clearly mindful of not throwing it to the other team. A couple of times, he opted to throw it away instead of trying to make a tough play. Those were smart decisions. He also held on to the football, whether he was running or moving around in the backfield. Not once did he put it on the ground. Turnovers would've been killer with Tylan Wallace, Chuba Hubbard and LD Brown hobbled, but Sanders steered clear of disaster Saturday.
The replacements: A
Listen, there were so many Cowboys injured that I'm not sure I could account for all the replacements. But the most notable absences were Wallace, Hubbard and Kolby Harvell-Peel, and the Cowboys who largely filled in for them were masterful. Top of that list is Brown, who was himself limited in practice this week by a leg injury. He rushed for 110 yards on 15 carries. Big time. Dillon Stoner took Wallace's spot among the receivers, and he led the Cowboys with seven catches for 62 yards. And while several Cowboys filled in for Harvell-Peel at safety, the lion share of the snaps went to Jason Taylor. His most notable contribution? The game-winning scoop-and-score touchdown.
The Cowboys looked like a different team in the second half, and that's a credit to defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn. Despite working with depleted rosters, they went into the locker room and figured out how to make things work. Knowles preached discipline against K-State's backfield motion and tweaked a few keys. The result was three consecutive three-and-outs after halftime in which K-State managed only 16 yards. That completely changed the momentum of the game. And the offense capitalized, finding ways to get some room for ball carriers including around the edge. Dunn also mixed in a few short passes for Sanders that were almost rhythm throws. On both sides of the ball, the Cowboys did things in the second half that they didn't in the first, and it was game changing.
Special teams: B
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Nothing spectacular, but a week after a couple costly blunders, solid was more than sufficient. K-State has one of the country's best punt returners in Phillip Brooks, and he had only one return for 10 yards. Meanwhile, OSU punter had eight punts that averaged 38.6 yards. Three of them ended up inside the 20-yard line. Additionally, kicker Alex Hale was 2 for 2 on field goals, and while neither was particularly long — 35 and 33 yards — both came in the third quarter when the Cowboys desperately needed points. Had Hale missed either, it would've been deflating.
Okie stars: A
High school football coaches in Oklahoma were probably walking around with their chests puffed out after the way some of their alums performed Saturday in Manhattan. Bixby High product Brennan Presley scored the Cowboys' first touchdown — and the first of his career — on a 9-yard run in the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, Carl Albert alum Jason Taylor scored OSU's other touchdown when he returned a fumble 85 yards. The Cowboy causing the fumble? Millwood product Israel Antwine. Then on K-State's two-point attempt that could've tied the game, Oolagah alum Brock Martin stripped the ball from Wildcat quarterback Will Howard. Great day for the Okies.
Containing Deuce: A
K-State running back Deuce Vaughn has been electric this season. He's elusive and tough, a difficult combination to contain. But the OSU defense was masterful against him. Vaughn had only 40 yards on 17 carries. While Howard had a big day running the ball — the Wildcat quarterback had 125 yards on 14 carries — Vaughn never got going. The Cowboys got him to the ground quickly, and several times, they bottled him up in the backfield.
Limiting mistakes: A
K-State has long been known as a program that doesn't beat itself, but Saturday, OSU was much better at limiting mistakes. The two teams had the same amount of penalties, but in the turnover department, the Cowboys had none while the Wildcats had two, both in the fourth quarter. What's more, K-State coach Chris Klieman's decision to go for a two-point conversion in the first half came back to haunt the Wildcats. By chasing points before halftime — and failing to convert — they were forced to go for two instead of kicking for one and the tie in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats made the game-changing plays that worked in the Cowboys' favor.