Oklahoma State 21 – Iowa State 24 | Spencer Sanders Had a Day, Controversial Calls, and Conservative Play Calling

The no. 8 Oklahoma State Cowboys traveled to Ames to take on the Iowa State Cyclones on Saturday afternoon, and on the very first possession of the game, the Cyclones were out to prove that they meant business. Brocky Purdy connected with Charlie Kolar for a 34-yard game on the first play of the game. The two connected a few plays later on 4th and 1, but the result was different as the Cowboy defense stood strong to force a turnover on downs.

Oklahoma State was in control of the game for the entire first half, taking a 14-7 lead into halftime, but like they have done all season, they came out flat in the 3rd quarter. Unable to find any offensive success, the Cowboys gave up 10 points to enter the final quarter trailing the Cyclones 17-14.

It took the Cowboys just 5 plays on their first possession of the fourth quarter to find the end zone to take a 21-17 lead, but Iowa State was able to answer on the very next drive to retake the lead at 24-21.

A couple of possessions later—with no change in the score—the Cowboys faced a 4th and 1, and Spencer Sanders connected with Brennan Presley for what looked like enough for a first down, but the ball was marked short, and the game was effectively over.

This was a polarizing game in a lot of ways, and there are a few key points that stood out to me, so let’s break down some details and see what the Cowboys need to do to recover from the loss.

Spencer Sanders Had a Day

First things first: we need to give credit where credit is due. Cowboy quarterback Spencer Sanders had one of the best games of his career and by far his best game of the season. Oklahoma State relied heavily on the run early, and Sanders played a key role that in that by using his feet to help the Cowboy down the field, but his first pass of the day was a 5-yard completion to Brennan Presley for a touchdown.

Sanders had a few incompletions before he was able to connect with a receiver again, but by the second half, it was obvious that offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn felt comfortable with throwing the ball at a higher rate.

Throughout his entire career in Stillwater, Sanders has been known for his turnover issues. He has one of the worst touchdown-to-interception ratios among Power 5 quarterbacks, and while it hasn’t been an issue this season, he has fumbled more than his share of times.

On Saturday, however, Sanders showed something that he hadn’t really done much of ever, and that was his staying calm in the pocket. On a number of plays where the offensive line started to lose their blocks, Sanders stepped up into the pocket, went through his reads, and made the right throw. As a result, he put up some solid stats, especially by his own standard. Also, give credit to his receivers for stepping up and making some impressive catches.

On the day, Sanders finished with completing 15-of-24 (62.5%) of his passes for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns. On top of that, he didn’t throw any interceptions, which is kind of a big deal for him. He wasn’t just successful through the air, though. Sanders rushed 11 times for 29 yards, including an 18-yard scramble, and a number of his runs were turning negative yardage into small gains.

It’s unfortunate that the Cowboys were unable to come away with a win after such a great performance from Spencer Sanders. Still, the season is far from over, and it’s encouraging to see some real progress from Sanders. Hopefully he can keep up this level of production moving forward.

Controversial Calls

As far as officiating goes, there was plenty to be upset about in this one. Early in the third quarter, Xavier Hutchinson broke loose after catching a pass from Brock Purdy, and what should have been a touchdown ended up being pushed back into the field of play because of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. While the call was a bit nitpicky, Hutchinson was showboating a bit as he entered the end zone, and because the play was still in motion, the penalty applied to before the play instead of after. It didn’t really matter, though, as the Cyclones scored the touchdown a few plays later, and the game went on.

From that point forward, though, the officials almost seemed like they were trying to make up for the bad call, and it ended up hurting the Cowboys tremendously. Oklahoma State was called for a couple of crucial pass interference calls which easily could have gone uncalled, as well as a couple of holding calls that were also questionable at best. While getting flagged is part of the game, it’s hard to overcome if it’s inconsistent.

Still, there’s no excuse for getting penalized, and the Cowboys had to find a way to get over it and find some success anyway. They appeared to be able to do just that until they had the game on the line in a 4th and 1 situation at midfield with no touchdowns and just a couple of minutes left in the game. Spencer Sanders found Brennan Presley on a wide receiver screen play, and pretty much everybody in the country except the officials on the field—and Iowa State fans, of course—thought there was enough of a gain for the first down, but a poor spot ended the drive, as well as Oklahoma State’s ability to continue their drive for a chance to tie or take a lead.

Conservative Play Calling

Controversy happens, and it’s unfortunate that the Cowboys seem to be on this side of things at least once a season, but when it all comes down to it, you have to take care of business from the get go so that you don’t have to rely on flawed humans to make the right call for you. I took big issue with the spotting of the ball on this 4th down play, but to me, the biggest controversy of the day was the play calling on 4th and short.

At the start of the second quarter, Oklahoma State had marched from their own 26 yard line all the way down to the Iowa State 33. The Cowboys needed just 2 yards for a first down, but after Spencer Sanders was stuffed at the line twice, Kasey Dunn or Mike Gundy or whoever it was responsible made the decision to attempt a 50-yard field goal instead of just going for it. The field goal was missed, and in hindsight, it’s obvious to ask the question, “Why didn’t they go for it?”

Fast forward to the third quarter, and the Cowboys find themselves in a similar situation. This time, the game is all tied up at 14-14, Oklahoma State is on the Cyclone 15 yard line, and they are facing a 4th and inches situation. The running game was going strong, and it makes sense to say that the Cowboys could likely get the first down, and then proceed to go for the touchdown. Instead, they opted for a chip shot field goal, which was yet again missed.

Two missed field goals were key to the end result of the game. If Tanner Brown makes just one, we’ve got a tie score. If he makes both, the Cowboys likely pull out the win. Still, conservative play calling has been an Achilles heel for the Cowboys for years now, and it seems to have bitten them in the butt yet again. Sometimes you have to gamble to get a win, but would it really have been gambling for Mike Gundy to give the green light to go for the first down in either of those situations? I say no.

This loss stings, and fortunately there is still a lot of the season left where Oklahoma State can find plenty of success, including a chance to make it to the Big 12 Championship game, but there will undoubtedly be more opportunities where the coaching staff is going to be faced with the touch decision to buck up or shut up, and if they show they aren’t willing to take risks, then there’s really no reason for opposing teams to be afraid to take on the Cowboys.

Better Days Ahead

Next week the Cowboys make their way home to Stillwater where they will host the Kansas Jayhawks. The Jayhawks are just 1-6 on the season, but they put up a heck of a fight against the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday. This should be a good game for Oklahoma State to come out and find their groove again as they get ready for the final stretch of games to end the season.

Kickoff against the Jayhawks is set for 6 PM, and the television info has not yet been released.

Be sure to follow @HeartlandPokes for more updates and conversation on Oklahoma State Athletics.

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