FORT WORTH, Texas – Dillon Stoner stepped up, letting the spiraling leather ball bounce on the turf in front of him.
The play was one of myriad mistakes the Oklahoma State football team made in its game against TCU on Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium. There was Tylan Wallace’s offensive pass interference on a play where Tyron Johnson caught a touchdown pass. Calvin Bundage’s 15-yard facemask in the first half helped TCU drive into Cowboy territory. A chop block pushed OSU back on offense when that same unit couldn’t muster any positive momentum in the first half.
After the first quarter in OSU’s 31-24 loss against the Horned Frogs, OSU committed more penalty yards (41) than in total of its previous two games.
“We play teams that are top 10 in the country, and we play like a top-20 team,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “We play teams that are not playing as well and struggling, and we play like a top-80 team.
“It’s not just the players. It’s the coaches and the players.”
The discombobulation has occurred all season for OSU, which has ridden a roller coaster from the highs of beating top 10 Texas and West Virginia teams to losing against a now 5-7 Texas Tech while Saturday’s loss helped the Horned Frogs become bowl eligible.
Before the drive that OSU scored its first touchdown, quarterback Taylor Cornelius had as many completions as Matt Hockett had punts.
OSU’s team under Gundy has been one of the worst with penalties and consistency. Cornelius looks like an All-Big 12 performer one Saturday only for him to look like a walk-on the next. The Cowboys’ $5 million man scratched and clawed his team to a 6-6 record with a 3-6 mark in conference play, which is better than only Kansas, a team the Horned Frogs lost to not even a month ago.
TCU scored its most points in conference play against the OSU defense, though it wasn’t that unit’s fault for the blunder in Fort Worth. The Cowboy offense, however, was the source of constant struggle and inconsistency. Cornelius completed just 17 of his 40 passes for 181 yards. His throws were off target and lethargic, much like the Cowboys’ performance.
On the ground, he was effective in helping spark a rally to bring the score within seven points twice in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late.
“I think any time you fail, you get that sense to get frustrated,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “I think what you can focus on is what you need to improve and what you need to fix and how I can coach better.
“Coach Gundy did a great job this week of getting our guys ready and talking to the team. I gotta do a better job.”
Cornelius finished the 2018 regular season with more rushing touchdowns than Justice Hill, who missed his second consecutive game with a rib injury. That inconsistency comes with the highs and lows of being outcoached in matchups against inferior opponents while performing like a blue-chip program against the upper echelon.
The same mistakes teams make in early September are the ones OSU is making in late November. 15-yard penalties and missed assignments. Poor decisions like Chuba Hubbard not corralling a backward pass that TCU recovered for a touchdown to begin the third quarter. Sticking to game plans for too long when they’re not effective.
There were also missed assignments defensively, like on Derius Davis’ 24-yard touchdown catch that proved to be the winning score. The Horned Frogs faked a screen pass, something that had gashed the defense a few times before, and three Cowboy defenders bit on the fake, leaving Davis to lonesome on the purple grass in the end zone.
Grayson Muehlstein, TCU’s fifth-year quarterback who made his first career start against OSU, outdueled Cornelius. He accounted for two touchdown passes and looked the part of a savvy veteran rather than lowly noob.
“It’s hell,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said of the inconsistency. “It’s tough on the players and coaches. It’s tough on all of us because you start to see signs of progress, you feel like you turn the corner. Then it’s like two steps forward, one step back.”
The Cowboys earned a bowl berth, which will be announced next Sunday. Until then, the questions will continue on an OSU team that’s likely too good to be in rebuilding mode but will finish ninth in the Big 12 Conference. The roller coaster seems to be coming into the station, running out of steam before it stops and prepares for its next ride. Whether that’ll next journey will be the bowl game or next season remains to be seen.
“Once we qualified for a bowl, I was excited for the work,” Gundy said. “We have a lot of guys that need a lot of work, but the one thing we stressed was how important this game was. Every game is important.
“We stressed that hard, but they were hungrier than we were. They wanted it more than us.”