The Sooners head to Dallas having demonstrated how they’re different

The Sooners head to Dallas having demonstrated how they’re different

This Oklahoma team is different from the one that limped out of the Cotton Bowl last season. OU’s 50-20 victory over Iowa State Saturday largely reinforced that.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 1, 2023, 10:16am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 1, 2023, 10:16am CDT

NORMAN — Brent Venables spent nine and a half minutes last week on the intangible as he spoke about how this Oklahoma team, the one that meets Texas at 11 a.m. Saturday inside the Cotton Bowl is different.

Across 60 minutes with Iowa State on Owen Field Saturday night, the proof was easier to grasp.

An invigorated Dillon Gabriel floated deep balls as he pleased. Ten players from OU’s most improved position group recorded at least one reception. The Sooners forced turnovers and made game-shifting plays on special teams. And a defense that showed early cracks pitched a shutout over the final 39 minutes of Oklahoma’s 50-20 victory over the Cyclones.

Next weekend’s bout with No. 3 Texas will hand the 14th-ranked Sooners the ultimate stress test of their unbeaten start to 2023. The visit from Iowa State offered something else. To take care of an inferior opponent at home would mark another sign of the difference in this OU team. 

Mission (mostly) accomplished.

“We’re not a championship team right now but this is another step to try to get there,” Venables. “I love the will and the fight and the toughness and the leadership.”

Texas held up its end of the bargain with its 40-14 win over No. 24 Kansas Saturday afternoon. The Sooners followed in kind several hours later, scoring the last 29 points to drown the Cyclones and pave the way to a grand occasion in Dallas.

The Red River rivals will meet as unbeatens for the first time since 2011. Not since 2008 have OU and Texas both rolled into the Cotton Bowl at 5-0. 

ESPN’s College GameDay is set to make its fourth trip to the Texas State Fair. Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit will be there for the first biggest game of Venables’ head coaching career.

Late Saturday night, as the Sooners flipped the page to Texas Week, the Longhorns’ 49-0 smackdown of a year ago felt distant. 

“Obviously last year happened,” said linebacker Danny Stutsman. “(We’ve) been through the fire, been scarred up. But we’re ready to go, man. We’re excited. We’ve been looking forward to this since last year.”

This OU team is different from the one that limped out of the Cotton Bowl about this time last year. Saturday night’s developments largely reinforced that. The Sooners seem to know it, too.

“Someone punches us in the mouth, we finna punch them back,” said wide receiver Jayden Gibson. “… I remember some games (last year) we got punched in the mouth, man. I feel like we never recovered last year. This year I feel like we can recover from anything, man.” 

For contrasts, start by looking under center. 

Gabriel spent last season’s Red River game sidelined by the concussion he suffered the previous week in a 55-24 defeat at TCU. Davis Beville started against the Longhorns. Brayden Willis, Eric Gray, Marcus Major and punter Michael Turk threw passes, too. 

Sooner passers completed 9 of their 17 passes for 39 yards.

Three-hundred and sixty-four days later, Gabriel is flying as he prepares to make his Red River debut. Iowa State landed on the receiving end of his latest, best game in 2023.

Gabriel launched downfield throws to the downfield threats like Nic Anderson, Brenen Thompson and Jalil Farooq, completing eight passes of 15 yards or more on a secondary that hadn’t allowed 300 yards passing since Nov. 2021.

Gabriel already has logged more 300-yard passing games in 2023 (four) than he did in 12 starts last season. 

Gabriel made plays with his feet, too. His first-quarter, 16-yard scramble marked the Sooners’ longest run of the night and Gabriel punched in from a yard out one play later. His second rushing score came from six yards out and ended with a heavy hit that Gabriel likened to a basketball and-one with a nod to his high school basketball-coaching father.

Different from a year ago, Gabriel is healthy. Venables spoke postgame of a veteran passer in “a much different place” mentally as Texas emerges on the schedule again. 

“I think a big thing in my head is continuing to have fun with this game,” Gabriel explained after his five-touchdown effort. “It was a rocky road. I’m kinda going back to when you’re that little kid and just enjoying every second of it.

“I think I had lost it for a little bit. But when I flipped that switch and just started having fun it’s allowed me to play free, have fun, play fast and then play with a free mind.” 

It’s shown up in the string of performances sending Gabriel into Red River playing the best football of his life. Flip it to the defense and the Sooners appear to have something similarly reliable these days, even if Saturday came with a choppy start.

Billy Bowman delivered the opening statement with his 44-yard pick-six, yet it was flashes of 2022 (or 2018) that surfaced in the pair of miscues that produced Iowa State’s only touchdowns.

Key Lawrence mistimed the ball and missed the tackle on Jaylin Noel’s 51-yard score. Jayden Higgins’ 67-yarder was the direct result of a coverage collision between Bowman and Gentry Williams. The two longest touchdowns OU has given up so far in 2023 came less than 10 minutes apart. For the first time this season, it felt like the Sooners were reeling. 

“We’ve got to have a little more discipline there in that situation,” Venables said.

Defensive adversity hit OU frequently last fall and often piled up. How the Sooners responded against Iowa State was telling and bodes well on the way to Texas.

The OU lead stood at 21-20 with 9:06 remaining in the second quarter after Chase Contreraz connected on his 48-yard field goal. Those were the final points Iowa State would collect on the night.

From there, the Sooners held the Cyclones scoreless to the finish. Five of Iowa State’s final eight drives came and went without a first down. The visitors ran 35 plays and gained 88 net yards (2.5 yards per snap) over the final 40 minutes. 

There’s a certain resolve within this OU defense that’s presided over the first month of the season and it was there Saturday night.

“I feel like we are closer as a team,” said Bowman. “We know each others’ jobs and we know what we’re capable of. If we know what we’re capable of, all we gotta do is go out there and do it and not make it harder than it is.”

Days before the 30-point win, Venables delivered one of his vintage, long-winded press conference answers. 

Nearly a quarter of his weekly press conference went to a lengthy response on the collective buy-in within the program that touched on everything from how Venables conducts his team meetings, sentences centered on the “fanatical sense of desperation to do your job,” and the individual development of reserve defensive lineman Marcus Stripling. 

In the locker room Saturday night, Venables explained he delivered his players another message. 

“Leadership is not a position, it’s an act,” he said. “It’s being a doer.”

The Sooners did exactly what they needed against Iowa State. Now the stage is set for a savory collision with the Longhorns in Dallas.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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