It hasn’t been easy for Taylor Cornelius. The fifth year walk-on has had to learn on the job in front of a national spotlight in what will be only season as Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback. After going 5-5 in his first ten games — including losses to Kansas State and Baylor — Cornelius has taken more than his fair share of criticism from fans and media alike. Many questioned the reasoning of Mike Gundy and Mike Yurcich in starting a seemingly unwanted player over a promising freshman quarterback and a graduate transfer. Coming into tonight, it looked as if Cornelius’ tenure would be a forgettable interregnum between the Mason Rudolph Era and the Spencer Sanders Era.
When the final whistle blew tonight, however, Corn Dawg emerged victorious against No. 9 West Virginia, threw the Big 12 title race into chaos, and gave Oklahoma State — and the country — reason to remember his name.
The game started out as everyone predicted (well, maybe not everyone): with an early West Virginia touchdown. Underrated Mountaineer tailback Kennedy McKoy racked up 55 rushing yards on the game’s very first drive alone before punching the ball in from five yards out. McKoy would go on to rack up 148 yards and two touchdowns on just 21 carries. He almost singlehandedly won the game for WVU. Almost.
What made tonight different from the Cowboys’ five losses was the their ability to respond from adversity. Cornelius led the Pokes down the field to tie the game at seven all, finishing the drive with a seven yard fade route to Tylan Wallace in the right corner of the endzone. Last week Cornelius had been unable to deliver a similar throw on a two-point conversion attempt against Oklahoma. This week, however, he bounced back, placing the ball right where only Wallace could reach it and trusting his sophomore Biletnikoff finalist to make the play. West Virginia took just 1:13 to respond, marching down the field in four perfect Will Grier passes, the last a 13 yard scoring strike to Gary Jennings, Jr. The first quarter ended 14-7 in favor of the visitors.
In the second quarter, McKoy and Heisman hopeful Will Grier turned on the jets and almost left the Cowboys in the dust. Almost. Grier found his excellent receiver David Sills V on a beautifully-placed fade route for a 22 yard score. Cornelius brought the Pokes back within a touchdown by gifting Logan Carter with his first touchdown of the season on a 20 yard toss. It wasn’t pretty after that. The Cowboy quarterback threw an ugly interception and led his team to two straight three-and-outs during. West Virginia soon capitalized on the good field position. Again, it was Kennedy McKoy doing the damage, rambling 51 yards on just three carries, the last a 30 yard score. 28-14 Mountaineers. Cornelius responded with another tough interception and West Virginia made them pay for it once more, this time an Evan Staley 43 yard field goal. The teams went into halftime with the Mountaineers on top, 31-14.
Mike Gundy must have delivered a hairdryer of a halftime speech, because the team looked notably improved in the third quarter and began to chip into the sizable lead. Cornelius used his legs to pick up a first down and Chuba Hubbard, filling in for Justice Hill, flashed his impressive speed on some big carries before catching a one yard touchdown. Time and time again, Jim Knowles’ defense came up with big stops in the secondary to force West Virginia off the field, and Matt Ammendola looked like his old self tacking on a 20 yard field goal after a promising drive stalled. The third quarter ended 31-24 Mountaineers. Oklahoma State Twitter (and the Cowboys Ride for Free Slack thread) began to wonder if Gundy & Co. were masterminding another gut-wrenching close loss. They weren’t.
In the fourth quarter, Cornelius took over, plain and simple. After another Evan Staley field goal stretched the West Virginia back to double digits at 34-24, Cornelius found Tyron Johnson - who had been fairly quiet on the night for a 6 yard touchdown. After avoiding Big Dumb Penalties for most of the evening, the Oklahoma State defense nearly gave away the game when a pass interference call on Devin Harper turned 4th and five into 1st and goal for West Virginia. Three plays later, Will Grier flashed his weird, deceptive speed on a 6 yard scoring scamper. With their ten point lead once again restored at 41-31, the Mountaineers needed only to hang on for the final 7:37 to all but guarantee their spot in the Big 12 title game. It looked like fait accompli. It wasn’t.
Rushed by the blue defenders hoping to kill off the game, Cornelius stepped and ran for huge chunks of yardage culminating in a 9 yard touchdown run. He ended with 45 rushing yards on the drive alone. After frustrating Will Grier and FINALLY stuffing McKoy, the Cowboy defense stepped up and forced a bad West Virginia punt, giving Cornelius and the Oklahoma State offense the ball on their own 25 yard line.
Cornelius immediately went to work with 17 and 12 yard runs in the first three plays of the drive. After an incomplete pass to Landon Wolf, Chuba Hubbard picked up two consecutive first downs bringing the ball down to the West Virginia 11 with 1:15 remaining. The Cowboys wouldn’t need that much time.
Spreading his receivers out wide, Cornelius stood tall in the pocket, staring an unblocked linebacker square in the eye. Once again he trusted Tylan Wallace to make a play on a well-thrown ball. Once again, Tylan came up big. Catching the ball from a slant route just shy of the five yard line, Wallace charged into the defender and dragged him into the endzone. Touchdown Cowboys, 45-41!
WIth 42 second left Grier marched West Virginia down the field, but it was another oft-criticized Cowboy who seized his chance at redemption. In the games final seconds, AJ Green, Jr. more than made up for giving up the winning touchdown against Baylor by breaking up a pass in the endzone and sealing the victory.
At 6-5 with wins over two top 10 teams and a narrow loss to a third, many fans will be left wondering what could have been, had this version of the Cowboys taken the field against Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, and Baylor. Save that for another night. Tonight was special and so was Cornelius.