STILLWATER — Four years in the making, Taylor Cornelius finally got his shot.
But with all eyes on him in Thursday night’s season opener, the fifth-year senior looked like he was playing his first meaningful football game since he was in high school in the Texas Panhandle.
Which he was.
Oklahoma State effortlessly and predictably pounded Missouri State in a 58-17 victory, but the Cowboys may still have concerns at quarterback.
“I thought Taylor was average, at best,” Gundy said. “I just thought he missed too many throws.”
Gundy and Boone Pickens have elevated the OSU program to a level where winning is expected. Demanded, even. For that to happen, the Cowboys need excellent quarterback play. When they get it — Mason Rudolph, Brandon Weeden, Zac Robinson — O-State can field a formidable squad.
When they don’t, the Cowboys are in for an average season.
It’s too soon to suggest this season will be average. It’s too soon to say that Cornelius can’t be very good.
But he wasn’t on this night. He was uneven, tentative, nervous, unable to shed his apprehensions and just sling the football around, Gundy said.
“I did expect some nerves, no question about it,” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich. “It comes with the position. But he’ll get it ironed out.”
“He’ll be fine,” Gundy said.
Cornelius was just fine statistically, 24-of-34 passes for 295 yards with five touchdowns and one interception before giving way to fourth-team backup Keondre Wudtee. (“It’s complicated,” Gundy said later.)
But the stats tell half-truths. A 54-yard touchdown pass was all receiver. So were some early throws, short dump-offs that resulted in broken tackles and long gains. Cornelius also had an easy interception dropped in addition to an actual end zone interception off a poor throw.
“I thought I could have done better, for sure,” Cornelius said afterward. “Can’t throw an interception like that.”
It’s not accuracy or reading the defense or command of the offense that Yurcich wants Cornelius to improve on during the next six days. It’s confidence.
“Just letting it rip, you know? Yurcich said. “He’s got a big arm, and he’s shown it off time and time again. Throwing on time, that’s the biggest thing. Getting the ball off on time and have confidence behind that throw, transition the weight and let it rip.
“He trusts his arm, I think he was just a little tentative today, for whatever reason.”
“He didn’t do that all night,” Gundy said. “You know in baseball when guys try to aim instead of just throwing the ball? Pitchers? That’s what he did tonight. And that doesn’t surprise me. He was more tentative, based on ‘I’m a starter,’ instead of just cutting it loose. He’s got to cut it loose. It’s OK. You make a mistake, you make a mistake.”
Gundy said on July 17 that Cornelius was his starting quarterback going into August — a pretty stern qualification. Now that August has come and gone, and OSU has played a game, Gundy probably knows the job is anything but settled going into September, though the coach remained noticeably upbeat.
“Everyone’s gonna have to be patient with him,” Gundy said. “I knew that he would have some jitters and fire the ball out there and times and miss some throws. I was fairly certain that would happen. That’s why I said everyone’s just going to have to be patient with him and let him work through some things. Early, Mason did too. His first year, he … missed a lot of throws in the first few games. A lot of times that happens with young players. He should get better.”
Cornelius will get better, for sure. But so will the opponents, starting next week with South Alabama and again the week after with Boise State. Missouri State is a lousy FCS team, lacking in scholarships and athletes and a whole lot more.
Cornelius’ first career start was well earned. He redshirted in 2014, played in two games (five throws) in 2015, and was a mop-up guy in 2016 (two games, nine throws) and 2017 (five games, 10 throws).
Just being out there in front of 50,103 Cowboy faithful was special.
“That’s what you come here for,” the former walk-on said. “It felt great to get out there and get the chance to do it, but I’ve got to be better.”
Cornelius’ debut as Rudolph’s heir apparent didn’t exactly create confidence that the Cowboys can handle 22nd-ranked Boise State in two weeks, or successfully navigate the Big 12 Conference schedule.
The feeling here is that the quarterback competition will continue.
Cornelius was understandably jittery at the outset. He didn’t seem to trust either his receivers or his arm and elected to throw safe, dump-off passes to the running backs. That’s smart for a first-time starter, yes. But he had several targets wide open downfield.
Once, rather than throw 10 yards to a receiver all alone, he kept the football and ran. It worked out great as he nearly scored on a 32-yard run, but it wasn’t the what coaches wanted him to do.
OK, fine, he started out nervous. No big deal.
But once the game got going and the lead grew to 17 and 24 and 31, Cornelius struggled more and more before settling down a bit at the end.
After Missouri State defenders jumped offsides twice in a three-play stretch, Cornelius correctly heaved the ball deep downfield. But with a stiff wind at his back, he badly overthrew his receiver both times, the ball landing out of bounds and uncatchable. He didn’t give his receiver a chance to even make a play when the worst thing that could happen is a 5-yard defensive penalty.
Later, this time going into the wind, he badly underthrew a deep ball in one-on-one coverage, but the Missouri State defender dropped an easy interception.
After the Cowboys forced a turnover deep in Bears territory, Cornelius badly underthrew a fade route in the end zone, again one-on-one, and this time the ball was intercepted.
Then, just before halftime, Cornelius overshot Dillon Stoner open in the end zone, a 35-yard throw that Stoner couldn’t get to even with a dive. The next play, Wallace fumbled and the scoring threat had ended.
In the third quarter, with the wind at his back, Cornelius underthrew a deep ball to Stoner that might have been a touchdown but instead drew a pass interference penalty. On the next drive, he tried to hit an open receiver on the sideline but his throw sailed too high on third-and-short.
Listen, wind happens in Oklahoma. But good quarterbacks, truly accurate quarterbacks, are able manage it. Successful quarterbacks don’t experience such wildly varied swings in accuracy just because the quarter is over. Cornelius said the wind bothered him “a little; it wasn’t bad,” but if Cornelius can’t rein that in, Gundy will have to consider a switch.
Cornelius made plenty of nice throws, too, particularly an 18-yard touchdown pass to Jalen McCleskey on an intermediate post route. His 29-yard TD to McCleskey on the second play of the fourth quarter — McCleskey worked through the defense and stood all by himself in the end zone as Cornelius floated out of the pocket and found him — put the Cowboys up 51-17.
“He just needs to settle down and throw and quit being tentative with his throws,” Gundy said.
Cornelius owns a quick release and his footwork is solid and he has a good command of the short stuff (though a few of those sailed on him as well). Gundy said he’s athletic enough to hurt defenses on the ground. The game will slow down for him and he’ll be better next week against South Alabama.
But will that be enough time and improvement before the Broncos come to town? Will his progress be enough before Big 12 play begins?
If it isn’t, if Cornelius continues to struggle, any notion of redshirting either Hawaii graduate transfer Dru Brown or first-year freshman Spencer Sanders is probably out of the question.
Third-year sophomore Keondre Wudtee was the first QB off the bench, though he wasn’t listed on the pregame media depth chart. That’s probably an indication of strictly mop-up duty, and Gundy said having two new quarterbacks and the NCAA’s new four-game redshirt rule has complicated the backup situation. No reason to burn a redshirt on a game like this.
“It’s a complex deal, and what we’re gonna do is watch each one of ‘em during the week and see where they’re at and see if they’re ready based on the way the game goes,” Gundy said. “A lot of times you can’t predict it. It’s the way the game goes.”
That, and his level of play, should be an alarm for Cornelius.
“I should have been better, no doubt about it,” Cornelius said.
The reality is that OSU fans have become a little spoiled by elite quarterback play. The hard truth is that elite quarterback play could be a luxury unavailable to the Cowboys in 2018.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.