NORMAN — Two weeks ago, the Iowa State Cyclones played at OU. Not the OU you’re thinking of. The other OU.
The Ohio University Bobcats, of Oxford, Ohio. The Ohio U. of the Mid-American Conference.
That OU beat Iowa State 10-7. That OU held the Cyclones to 271 total yards. That OU shut out Iowa State for almost 56 minutes.
So Saturday night on Owen Field, when wide-open Iowa State flanker Jayden Higgins took a medium-range pass from quarterback Rocco Becht, and Sooner defensive backs Billy Bowman and Gentry Williams collided and knocked each other down, and Higgins set sail for an untouched 67-yard touchdown, you wonder
ed about this OU.
Was anyone still excited about the pilgrimage to Dallas next weekend? The high hopes of playing Texas with a solid defense seemed shattered.
In the first 21 minutes Saturday night, the Cyclones had torched the Sooners for 20 points and 264 total yards. OU had hopes of having the best defense in the Cotton Bowl; suddenly, the Sooners didn’t seem to have the best defense even among teams that call themselves OU.
We spent all summer figuring we wouldn’t know what the 2023 Sooners were all about until they shared a stampede with the Longhorns. But if you can’t stop this shell of an Iowa State team, I think we know all we need to know.
Then Brent Venables’ defense indeed stopped the Cyclones. Shut out Iowa State the final 39:06 of the game. Held the ‘Clones to 88 total yards over that span. The Sooners won going away, 50-20, and suddenly we were back to not knowing what likely will happen in the Land of Corny Dogs and Fried Oreos, which is most preferable to knowing exactly what will happen.
That’s a reality Sooner Nation will embrace.
“We’re not as bad as we look,” Venables said of that horrific defensive start. “We’re not as bad as it looked. And it was bad. It looked bad, and it was bad in the moment. But after that happened, not allowing a score … it was a really strong response.”
Shame on us for thinking all this nonsense was behind us. The Sooners have wandered in the wilderness for what seems like 40 years (been more like seven), searching for a defense. But when Venables’ unit kept Cincinnati out of the end zone a week ago, fueling a 20-6 victory in the Queen City, we figured the milk and honey was ready to flow.
And less than a minute into the game Saturday night, Bowman made up a ton of ground to track Becht’s rollout pass, intercepted it in front of Higgins on the OU sideline and weaved his way to a 44-yard touchdown return.
Nobody could blame you if you thought the Sooner defense might outscore Iowa State all by its lonesome.
But wandering is wandering, even if you’re making progress. The Venables transformation is not linear. Fits and starts. Hits and misses.
“It was 100 percent self-inflicted wounds,” Bowman said of the early defensive lapses, which included touchdown passes of 51 and 67 yards, plus a variety of gouging running plays. “It was mainly just wrong angles. I guess you could say it’s eye discipline, too, just knowing where the ball’s going to be thrown. I feel like we were in great position, but we didn’t make the plays, and I know it’s a group of guys that can make those plays. We’ll get that fixed.”
In the end, Iowa State’s offense outscored OU’s defense by 13 points, which isn’t nearly enough to keep up with the Dillon Gabriel offense. The quarterback had another prolific game, and the Sooners go to Dallas with a fang-loaded offense that will be nothing like the toothless (and Gabriel-less) offense that OU trotted out in what became a 49-0 beatdown by the Longhorns last October.
But it’s comforting to know that OU might — might, I said might, might, might, might, might, might — can count on its defense to help out, too.
That hasn’t been happening much in recent years. Here are Texas’ point totals in the last seven Red Rivers: 49, 48, 45, 27, 27, 45, 24, 40. Yet somehow, the Longhorns won just twice.
Truth is, despite those first 21 minutes against Iowa State, things are different defensively under Venables. The past contained a false defiance. This OU defense is more proud than defiant.
“Guys took accountability,” Venables said of the early snafus. “Like I said, we have so far to go. If we want to have the kind of season that we want, we have to get to 5-0. This is about improving and needing to be relentless to improve.
“We’re not a championship team right now, but this is another step to try to get there. I love the will and the fight and the toughness and the leadership.”
The defensive leader, linebacker Danny Stutsman, took up for his crew, noting that there are playmakers on this team — OU has 10 interceptions through five games; remember in the Alex Grinch days, when the Sooners only talked about takeaways, rather than actually producing them? — and they will occasionally make a play on the ball and miss.
That didn’t seem to be the affliction Saturday night. The Sooners were taking wrong angles and leaving their post and not tackling and generally sleep-walking against a team that had a devil of a time against the other OU.
“Things just happen,” Stutsman said. “We had full faith in the guys. We knew we were kind of shooting ourselves in the foot like that. We dialed ourselves in and we were ready to go.”
The final 40 minutes were impressive. Iowa State didn’t get much done. The game turned into a rout, which frankly has not been the script of recent Sooner-Cyclone games. Matt Campbell’s program has been perhaps OU’s biggest Big 12 nemesis in the post-Bob Stoops era.
Now the Sooners go to Texas exactly how we thought they would go — 5-0 and mostly unproven, considering the schedule’s mediocre competition. Meanwhile, the Longhorns have slain Alabama in Tuscaloosa, so UT is for real.
But that’s OK. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the Cotton Bowl. Sooner Nation should feel good about that, after the 49-0 debacle of last October, and the OU identity crisis Saturday night against Iowa State.