Berry’s OU report card: Sooner running game still shaky, with Texas looming

Berry’s OU report card: Sooner running game still shaky, with Texas looming

Berry Tramel: Brent Venables seemed encouraged by the OU running game. He shouldn’t be. The Sooners finished with 157 rushing yards, but some of those were hollow.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 30, 2023, 11:57pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 30, 2023, 11:57pm CDT

NORMAN — OU’s 50-20 rout of Iowa State was a strange game. The Cyclones torched the Sooners early, then did little the last 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Dillon Gabriel’s passing was in high gear until coasting down the stretch, but the Sooner running game still lags.

The Sooner report card grades tough, especially the week before Texas. Here you go:

Running game: C. Brent Venables seemed encouraged by the OU running game. He shouldn’t be. The Sooners finished with 157 rushing yards, but some of those were hollow. Thirteen came off a swing pass to Drake Stoops that was a lateral. Dillon Gabriel netted 17 yards on three combined sacks/scrambles. On OU’s 37 true running plays, it gained 127 yards. That’s 3.43 yards per carry. Not good. Marcus Major had gains of 18 and 14 on his first carries of each half. Otherwise, Major carried 17 times for 34 yards. OU’s three tailbacks combined for 103 yards on 30 carries. Tawee Walker’s 60-yard run in the fourth quarter was wiped out by a holding penalty.

Defensive adjustments: A. Sometimes the adjustment is schematic. Sometimes the adjustment is imploring the troops to do better. A little of each led to OU’s superior defense over the last 40 minutes. In the first 20 minutes, OU’s middle-of-the-field pass coverage was a horror show – Rocco Becht hit Jaylin Noel for a 51-yard touchdown off a post pattern and Jayden Higgins for a 67-yard TD off a slant. Another slant pattern went for 11 yards, and ISU’s Daniel Jackson dropped a another pass when he was wide open. All in the first half. But Venables said OU’s safeties merely needed to stay in position (in the middle), and Cyclone coach Matt Campbell said the Sooner defense turned up the pass rush, particularly on the edges, the longer the game went. After Becht’s 67-yard TD pass to Higgins on the first play of the second quarter, he threw for just 50 yards the rest of the game.

Pass protection: A. Dillon Gabriel was sacked just once, twice he scrambled for gains and rarely was he forced to scramble from the pocket. Iowa State was credited with just two quarterback hurries. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said he was pleased with the protection, and Campbell lamented Gabriel standing unobstructed in the pocket, surveying the field. That explains another monster game from Gabriel on deep balls — he completed four of five, for 182 yards and two touchdowns.

First-down defense: C. Venables told us a few days ago how much he values first-down defense, and Campbell did the same Saturday night. The game showed us they are right. On the Cyclones’ first 13 first-down plays, they produced five double-digit gains, plus a nine-yard pass play. That kind of efficiency led to 20 ISU points on its first five possessions. But the Sooners finally got a grip on first down; on the remaining 13 first-down plays for Iowa State, it had just three gains of more than four yards, including nine plays that gained nothing or lost yardage. Second-and-long is no way to live, but it took OU awhile to consistently put the Cyclones in that predicament.

Kicking game: B. Peyton Bowen’s block of an Iowa State punt resulted in a safety – and should have been a touchdown for Trace Ford, who jettisoned the ball out of the end zone. The Sooners allowed no kickoff or punt return yardage. But kicker Zach Schmit missed a 36-yard field-goal try, and Jalil Farooq chose to return a kickoff that bounced into the end zone, resulting in poor field position (OU’s 15-yard line). Beating Texas likely will require pristine special teams.

Run defense: D. Iowa State is not a good running team. The Cyclones gained 87 yards on the ground against Iowa, 74 against OSU and 38(!) against Ohio U. But the Cyclones gained 142 yards on 24 designed runs against the Sooners; that’s 5.9 yards per carry. During the OU defense’s early struggles, Cyclones tailbacks reeled off gains of 39 and 17 yards (Abu Sama III), 20 yards (Cartevious Norton)  and 13 and 10 yards (Eli Sanders). Texas is licking its chops. The good news? The Sooners turned off the spigot in the second half. The Cyclones rushed for just 29 yards after halftime.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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