Dire circumstances have allowed for Oklahoma State freshman quarterback Shane Illingworth to expedite his development.
With Spencer Sanders out with an ankle injury, the Cowboys needed a backup good enough to keep the ship afloat. They’ve found one in Illingworth. It took some time for the offense to find its groove with a true freshman running the huddle, but last week’s 47-7 win against Kansas in his second start has OSU ranked in the Associated Press top-10 for the first time since 2017.
OSU’s defense — which is averaging just nine points allowed per game — is the biggest reason for the Cowboys’ 3-0 start, but Illingworth’s poise as an inexperienced quarterback also has helped. Teammate Tylan Wallace has been impressed with Illingworth’s demeanor.
“I think he held himself to a really high standard, and I think his maturity over the past couple games, the past couple weeks has just really got my attention,” said Wallace, who caught nine passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns last week. “I feel like he has the mentality of an older guy. You don’t see that a lot in a freshman, and I’m just really excited for him in the future and just the way he holds himself.”
Illingworth helped lead the Cowboys to a 27-13 win in the first start of his career against West Virginia, but it wasn’t until the Kansas game that OSU fans got to see him air it out a little. He threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns, OSU’s first passing touchdowns of the season.
“Once we had a little bit of consistency with the offensive line and Shane had some stats under his belt makes a big difference,” offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn said. “We wanted to push the ball down the field a little bit and open it up. We were pretty conservative the first two games, and it was time to stretch it vertical, so we took a couple shots and it worked out.”
Most freshmen don’t expect to see the field in a season opener of a close game as a third-string quarterback, but Illingworth found himself running the offense late in the third quarter in the opener against Tulsa. The Cowboys were facing a 7-3 deficit when the four-star prospect replaced transfer Ethan Bullock, who stepped in after Sanders went down in the first quarter.
Illingworth’s first pass of his career was a 29-yard completion to Wallace that sparked an 86-yard drive ending in a Chuba Hubbard touchdown run. It was OSU’s only touchdown during a 16-7 victory.
Illingworth completed 4-of-5 passes for 79 yards.
“Hats off to Shane, he stepped in during a moment where we needed a couple of plays,” Dunn said after the game. “He found the right couple of guys and got them the football. He got protection, settled up and did a nice job of standing in the pocket.”
Injuries have always been a part of football, but with the coronavirus also in effect, depth at all positions is even more valuable. The Cowboys have a strong receiving corps, and LD Brown has emerged as a strong second option to starting running back Hubbard. The defense has depth throughout the entire unit, and now the Cowboys have a backup quarterback who seems to have gained some confidence after the first three games.
The off week gives Sanders more time to heal, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him return against Baylor next week. However, these past three games have been positive for Illingworth’s development.
The TCU upset over Texas and the two Oklahoma losses have shown that teams just need to do enough to win sometimes, and Illingworth has done that for OSU with the help of a dangerous defense and dynamic offensive weapons surrounding him.
Frank Bonner II
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