NORMAN — Texas on the Cotton Bowl turf is only 11 days. As such, it could be easy for Oklahoma to overlook an Iowa State team with a sports betting investigation hanging over the program and two losses — including a 10-7 defeat to Ohio — already on the Cyclones’ record.
Brent Venables, however, isn’t among those shifting the focus anywhere beyond the 14th-ranked Sooners’ Week 5 matchup under the light on Owen Field (6 p.m., FS1).
“I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen from their football team, certainly considering the off the field issues that they’ve been going through,” he said of Iowa State Tuesday morning. “They’ve done much better than probably a lot of people anticipated and they’re getting better each week.”
The Sooners look to remain unbeaten Saturday night in a matchup that’s proved tricky for OU in recent seasons. Here’s everything you need to know from Venables’ pre-Iowa State press conference:
Respect for the Cyclones’ defense
Venables appreciates good defenses. So the Sooners’ head coach is an appreciator of what Iowa State defensive Jon Heacock has been doing since he arrived in Ames in 2016.
“They’ve been the standard on defense the last five years or so here in the conference,” Venables. “They do a fantastic job, coach Heacok and his staff, on defense.”
Through four weeks in 2023, the Cyclones have become the standard bearer for the Big 12 once again.
Iowa State visits Norman first in the conference in total yardage (292.5 yards per game) and pass defense (177.3 YPG) and third in the league in third-down defense behind only Oklahoma and Texas. To date this fall, opposing offenses are tallying only 16.5 points per game on the Cyclones.
The sustained success of the Heacock’s defense over eight years at Iowa State has drawn imitators of the Cyclones’ 3-5-5 scheme, including Venables who pulled elements of the system into his own defense as defensive coordinator at Clemson.
“It was affirmation that they do a great job at developing and teaching and scheming,” Venables said. “Their players play with great effort and toughness and belief. They’re very thorough as a staff and there’s a lot of cohesion there inside that building. They’ve developed a great culture.
“They’ve built something from a systematic standpoint, philosophy standpoint, scheme standpoint, that has had longevity in the conference.”
History fresh in the mind
Venables may not have been around for Iowa State’s last three visits to Owen Field but he’s plenty aware of how close the Cyclones have played OU in Norman since Matt Campbell arrived in 2016.
“As we know, the last three times that Iowa State has come to Norman against some pretty good teams in ’17, ’19 and ’21, they’ve had a lot of success,” Venables said. “And they’re 1-2 in those games. But the scoreboard total for both sides of the ball’s 101 for Oklahoma and 100 for Iowa State. So they’ll have great confidence.”
Iowa State’s only win in Norman since 1990 came in Campbell’s second season when the Cyclones topped OU 38-31 on Oct. 7, 2017. Since then, Iowa State has played OU close on Owen Field in a 42-41 loss in 2019 and a 28-21 defeat in Lincoln Riley’s penultimate game with the program in 2021.
All told, seven of the last eight meetings between the schools have been settled by 10 points or fewer. The Sooners are currently a 20-point favorite over the Cyclones, per Bovada.
Smalls things = big things
There’s a thousand ways to measure team buy-in and no one way to truly calculate it.
But asked about his team’s buy-in in 2023, Venables offered up an interesting insight that tells some of the story.
“We have food here on Sunday that you would think they’d be lined up all the way going down Jenkins. But a year ago on Sundays, they weren’t, not to the depth that we have this year. To me, that says guys are being a little more ambitious and going through more of a normal routine. Treatment. Food. Film. Recovery. School. Everything falls into place.
“That’s a very small thing but it’s a big thing. There’s a cumulative effect in everything.”
Savion Byrd returns
The Sooners’ third-year guard exited with an undisclosed injury in the the first half of the Week 3 win at Tulsa and did not travel to Cincinnati in Week 4. Five days out from the night kick with Iowa State, Venables says Byrd is back in practice and is expected to return Saturday.
In Byrd’s place, the Sooners have leaned on Troy Everett at left guard. The Appalachian State transfer got the start at Cincinnati and played 65 of a possible 75 snaps in the 20-6 win.
Notre Dame mishap
Venables was watching from home his wife Julie and his in-laws Saturday night when Notre Dame used 10 men on defense for the final two plays of the Fighting Irish’s 17-14 loss to Ohio State.
“I was like, ‘They don’t have enough guys. They got a problem on that right side.’” he said. “Sure enough. That’s Captain Obvious. And they ran the zone there. You feel bad for them because that was an incredibly well-played game—tough, physical. That was a fabulous football game. I admire both defenses, the quarterbacks—it was a great game.”
Venables smirked at the suggestion of Notre Dame’s miscue as a learning lesson but did acknowledge that the moment has been discussed among the coaching staff in Norman.
“I don’t want to talk about it but it’s like, ‘Note to self.’” Venables said while counting to 10 while with his left hand. “Your gut hurts, really, to be honest. Because that’s not the way you want to (end that game). That did affect, certainly, the second play, without question.”
OU enters Week 5 with eight interceptions that rank tied for second in the nation.
Those picks have come courtesy of a secondary that’s run as far as six-deep at cornerback in the month of September. Providing valuable leadership to that unit that includes three underclassmen and a junior college transfer is fifth-year defensive back Woodi Washington.
“In every circle, he’s popular in the locker room,” Venables said. “Not because he’s cool with everybody. But because of who he is as a person, as a leader, as a human being, as a competitor, as a teammate. Jealousy is not part of the character of Woodi Washington. He is the model of consistency.”
“He’s been a great mentor for all the youth that’s at that position,” Venables continued. “How you work every day and how you take notes. How you let the coach coach you. How you take responsibility when things need to be better. And that’s not easy for anybody. It’s not easy for a head coach — ‘I screwed that one up.’ But that’s part of it being a mature leader. Really proud and thankful for Woodi.”