Illingworth To The Rescue
In the midst of a throwback afternoon, and not one of those uniform-inspired fun throwbacks, but a latter-day Bob Simmons-era throwback, when the Cowboys scuffled to find a way – any way – to get past Southwest Missouri State or the like, No. 11 OSU sought a sign of life Saturday.
Spencer Sanders had long ago limped to the locker room and Tulsa led 7-3 into the fourth quarter. The offense, so highly touted, and for good reason, was left exposed on the offensive line and relying on a backup quarterback.
Enter Shane Illingworth.
The true freshman QB from Norco, Calif., passed over as Sanders’ replacement for more than two quarters, finally got a chance late in the third quarter.
And somehow, some way, on a Saturday that was so 2020, the Cowboys rallied for a 16-7 win before a limited, yet boisterous crowd of 14,668 at Boone Pickens Stadium.
Illingworth, a four-star recruit who entered late in the third quarter, completed his first four passes and led three solid drives, helping rescue OSU.
Upset and embarrassment avoided.
Hope and optimism maintained.
“Once thy told him he was coming in, he had the utmost confidence,” said star Cowboys wideout Tylan Wallace, held without a catch in the first half, before rallying with four receptions for 94 yards. “He didn’t look like a scared freshman. He believed in himself and he believed in us.”
For a while Saturday, the game and perhaps the season looked lost when Sanders headed to the locker room with what was reported as a “lower extremity injury,” then never returned. His status remained questionable after the game, although Mike Gundy seemed optimistic.
Ethan Bullock, a little-known junior college transfer from City College of San Francisco, came on in relief of Sanders and looked out of place. Behind Bullock, the Cowboys managed but 91 yards and six first downs – one by penalty – on 33 snaps spanning eight series.
Bullock finished 8-of-13 for 41 yards with a bad interception, thrown right to Tulsa’s Allie Green IV, snuffing out OSU’s only drive featuring consecutive first downs without Sanders at the TU 22.
That apparently was the tipping point for turning to Illingworth, who had missed time in the preseason due to contact tracing associated with COVID-19, or he might have been the first choice off the bench.
He entered with a flair, finding Wallace on a 22-yard pass play on his first snap. And Illingworth kept producing, leading the Cowboys on the go-ahead drive, covering 81 yards, completed when Chuba Hubbard scored on a 3-yard run.
Illingworth’s impact, if not his overall stats, was clear, as the team clearly responded to his entry, and performance, even if no one, including offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn, was sure what he would do, considering his limited reps in the preseason when he was removed from the backup quarterback competition to adhere to virus tracing procedures.
“He was really, really good, up until we didn’t have him for a little bit,” Dunn said. “He’s a very good passer. Very poised. A student of the game. He’s going to be really good.
“He stepped into a moment when we needed a couple plays.”
A couple of plays to avoid a devastating opening loss.
The defense more than did its part, repeatedly getting stops as the offense struggled to gain traction. The Cowboys limited Tulsa to 275 yards – less than OSU’s 287 – and held the Golden Hurricane without a third-down conversion on 12 chances, and a 1-for-4 denial on fourth downs.
“It’s just what I’ve been selling,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. “To be a great defense, to be a contributor to a championship team, you can’t be one-sided (on offense).”
The Cowboys added two late field goals to forge the final score in a win that was shaky, but welcome, ahead of the Big 12 opener next Saturday against West Virginia.
Before then, there’s much to be determined.
Will Sanders be available?
If not, is Illingworth the obvious starter?
And what about the offensive line, which scuffled throughout against a Tulsa team not likely to be of Big 12 caliber?
“I don’t think we’ll cancel practice tomorrow or Tuesday,” Gundy said with no lack of sarcasm.
Still, for at least a day, there is room for some satisfaction.
“I was proud of our team,” Gundy said. “We got put in a unique situation there for a while and had to regroup, particularly on offense. The defense was fabulous. Zero-for-12 on third down and one-for-four on fourth down is really the story of the game.
“We played well enough late to rally and get the guys the football that it needed to get to score points. I’m thrilled with the guys for fighting through all of the adversity and playing well enough to win the game at the end.”