Oklahoma is going to be put to the test this week, but it's not all going to do with its opponent.
The Sooners have been saying for the past two weeks, ever since a 31-30 loss to Kansas State, that the season isn't over and no one has thrown in the towel. We've had to take them at their word because no one in the program would ever tell us straight up that practice was lackluster and that they were worried about the psyche of the team.
So we've had to wait for the next game, which comes in Ames against Iowa State, to see for ourselves whether or not the Sooners really are going to battle to the end of the year and set themselves up for a big bowl game.
This was a trap game at the beginning of the season, but because of the Sooners' losses and the fact Oklahoma's Nov. 8 matchup with Baylor isn't nearly as sexy as it would be if both teams were undefeated, this game has come down the upset alert chart a bit. But it's still a dangerous game for the Sooners.
The talent in Ames has been upgraded considerably over the years and with Mark Mangino running the offense, the Cyclones are beginning to make use of the many weapons they have on that side of the ball. After all, they did just put up 45 points on Texas in Austin two weeks ago, the same defense that held OU to 29 yards in the first half a month ago.
The Sooners will have to show up and play well in order to beat Iowa State, which is going to be in a bit of desperation mode at 2-5. The Cyclones will have to win four of its final five games to make a bowl game, but a win over the Sooners, something that hasn't happened since 1990 and hasn't happened in Ames since 1960, would be the equivalent of a bowl win for the Iowa State program.
The mettle of the Sooners is going to be tested, beginning on Saturday and running through Bedlam on Dec. 6. How will the Sooners respond to being out of the national title race before the end of October? You can point to last year, when the Sooners turned mid-season disappointment to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, but there is a big difference this year.
Last year, the Sooners' second loss was an embarrassing performance against Baylor, just a few weeks after an embarrassing loss to Texas. There was a big chip on the Sooners' shoulder to prove it wasn't the bad team that showed up in those losses.
This year, though, Oklahoma's losses haven't been of the same embarrassing variety, particularly the loss to Kansas State. The Sooners have played well in both losses and can see they're not an awful team. So the motivation may not be quite the same as last year, and that may make a difference in how Oklahoma responds to adversity this year.
We'll see whether it does or not on Saturday. The Sooners have an opportunity to keep themselves in the hunt for a Big 12 title (only a tie, but ONE TRUE CHAMPION!), but more than that, we'll see just how much this team loves to play the game of football.
Three questions for Oklahoma
1. What will Oklahoma's motivation be like?
Chuka Ndulue said it best this week. “We do this game because we love it and we still love it so we're just going to keep playing hard.” The Sooners are playing for the love of the game right now and we're going to get to see that on Saturday. As stated above, no one in the program is going to say their focus isn't there, so the play on the field is going to have to determine that for us. Here's betting the Sooners come out and play well if for no other reason than Bob Stoops got their minds right and focused during the bye week.
2. How cautious will the coaching staff be with Trevor Knight?
Knight left the Kansas State game for a series with a shoulder injury and then left the locker room after the game with his left arm in a sling. Stoops implied on Monday Knight had missed some practice last week as well, but didn't comment on his status further. It will be interesting to see how Knight looks and how he is used on Saturday against the Cyclones. You can probably give up hope of seeing a lot of quarterback runs, but with Iowa State's defense ranked just 105th in the country in rushing defense and the return of Keith Ford, the Sooners may not have to do much more than hand the ball off 50 times on Saturday. Either way, plenty of eyes will be on Knight and how healthy he is.
3. Can the defense actually stop someone?
You used to look at Iowa State as a regrouping game for you battered units, but that's not the case anymore. Under offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, the Cyclones are beginning to put together a very nice offense and put up 45 points against Texas two weeks ago. Mangino is a great offensive mind and Stoops said this week how he hated seeing him on the opposite sideline. The OU defense was better against Kansas State, giving up just 385 yards, but made errors that led to three plays racking up 153 of those yards. The defense will be tested once again by a mobile quarterback, and with two weeks to prepare, you'd hope they would have a plan in place to neutralize Sam Richardson. If the Cyclones go wild, there's not much left but to declare the defense a complete disaster.
Three players to watch for Iowa State
1. QB Sam Richardson- 1,699 passing yards, 13 TDs, 6 INT, 319 rushing yards, 2 TDs
Richardson has improved quite a bit under Mangino this year and is actually the Cyclones leading rusher. Without sack totals, he has rushed for 435 yards. Trevone Boykin and Jake Waters gave the Sooners trouble with their ability to throw on the run and Richardson has the ability to do the same.
2. TE E.J. Bibbs- 32 receptions, 263 yards, 6 touchdowns
Bibbs is a big weapon for the Cyclones, catching almost half of Richardson's touchdown passes this season. He's a big reason why Iowa State is third in the country in red zone offense at 96 percent. With such an impressive build, he'll be a tough guy to cover for the OU linebackers and secondary.
3. CB Nigel Tribune- 47 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 8 pass breakups, 10 passes defended
One of the areas where Iowa State has consistently had good players has been the secondary and this year is no exception with Tribune. Only a sophomore, he's established himself as one of the better defenders in the Big 12. When (or if) Knight throws, he'll have to be on point to avoid giving Tribune an opportunity to make a momentum-changing play.
Key Matchup: Sam Richardson vs. OU secondary
As mentioned above, Richardson possesses the ability to run and while he's not the faster or most elusive guy out there, the threat of it can still give defenses fits if they are not sound in gap integrity, keep contain or stick with their man. This is especially true for the secondary. We saw how dangerous the pop-pass is against Kansas State and you can bet Iowa State has something of the sort in its arsenal. The secondary has to stay disciplined on the perimeter, not only because of Richardson's running ability but because Iowa State has some really talented wide receivers. Jarvis West and Allen Lazard are plenty good to beat the OU corners straight up without any help from deceptive schemes. Things don't get easier for the OU defense, but it has to play better if OU wants to leave with a win.
Prediction: Oklahoma 31, Iowa State 13
The Sooners reassert themselves as a run-oriented offense and rush for 250 yards. The OU defense stiffens and forces two turnovers, but still gives up several big plays to the Cyclones. Keith Ford scores a touchdown in his return to action.