When quarterback Baker Mayfield was planting the Sooner flag at midfield of Ohio Stadium, things were looking rosy for Oklahoma. The defense had shown a different tenor than in 2016, and Mayfield had put together an opening paragraph to a “why I should win the Heisman” essay.
Then the Sooners entered Big 12 play against Baylor and Iowa State and came out 1-1, outscoring the supposed patsies only 78-77. Mayfield continued to roll, but the defense was chewed up for 972 yards across two games, and this offense is not as strong as the 2016 unit that could handle shootouts every week. Now Oklahoma faces the emerging Texas Longhorns, who just clawed past Kansas State due to freshman QB Sam Ehlinger.
That looming rivalry in Dallas just makes the Sooners’ shocking home loss to Iowa State all the more interesting. Here’s why the 31-point road underdogs were able to pull that 38-31 victory off.
1. The Clones got a superhuman effort from LB/QB Joel Lanning.
The converted QB had eight tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery while also serving as a primary spy on Mayfield on passing downs. Then he added 35 rushing yards and 25 passing yards as a wildcat QB, converting four first downs throughout. He even played some on special teams. He then added yet another duty:
This just in: Joel Lanning to also play Chief of Police upon return to Ames.— Ames Police (@AmesPolice) October 7, 2017
Chief Lanning had some key runs to pick up those conversions.
This fourth-and-1 call kept a drive alive that put Iowa State on the board for the first time, while this run ...
... was a nice conversion and chunk of yardage on the game-winning drive. You worry about a guy playing in all three phases wearing down, but it’s the Sooners who looked exhausted trying to deal with the Chief.
Lanning still had one more key play to make, forcing a desperation throw from Mayfield on the game-ending fourth-and-4 play.
While his teammates bracket OU’s TE, Lanning takes away the quick shallow route before hunting down Mayfield.
Mayfield’s improvisations were a major problem for Iowa State early in this game. The Cyclones would regularly employ a 3-3-5 nickel package, featuring a drop 8/Tampa-2 coverage that flustered Texas the week before. But Mayfield took advantage of the three-man rush to run around until he found yardage or an open receiver. The Cyclones starting shadowing him with the Chief and saw some Fayetteville-esque results.
2. OU’s base defense is no bueno vs. the spread.
Iowa State went in without starting QB Jacob Park, as he was “sorting out personal medical concerns,” and that left former Oregon State Beaver and JUCO walk-on Kyle Kempt at the helm.
The Cyclones manufactured easy ways for him to find legitimately talented receivers for chunk yardage. While OU’s base 3-4 defense flustered the Ohio State run game, it leaves the Sooners limited against spread passing attacks. It’s vulnerable to motion or play-action that aims to exploit outside linebacker Caleb Kelly being out in space.
Here’s a play-action toss that sucked Kelly in and left backup safety Chanse Sylvie and cornerback Parnell Motley in a tough spot against a bubble screen. WR Allen Lazard — a 6’5, 223 pound freak — hooks Motley inside, and Sylvie is coming from too deep and with too much speed to reverse course.
Here’s Iowa State using play action to suck in Kelly (No. 19) and isolate the Sooners’ star, starting strong safety Steven Parker, against a Hakeem Butler double move:
The Sooners struggled all day with motion from even sets to trips (moving one WR to the same side as two others) that would pull Kelly out in space or necessitate checking into another coverage. The Sooners often had to remain predictable by always making the same checks, but they also opted for vulnerable blitzes:
That’s 85 yards and two touchdowns from two bubble screens, if you’re counting at home.
Playing two outside linebackers who can both blitz or drop into coverage sounds good, but if neither can perform like a DB, it ties the hands of the defensive coordinator. It also makes the defense vulnerable to spread offenses that use tempo, motion, and checks to force predictable coverages or favorable matchups. As we’ve seen, that’s virtually the entire Big 12.
3. The best skill talent you don’t know about.
Iowa State has some of the best skill talent in the country, which hasn’t been obvious due to struggles at OL and QB over the last two seasons. With Kempt capably leading, an improving OL avoiding negative plays, and the Sooners robbed of their aggression, it finally shined through.
You can see Butler above taking down Parker above and Lazard abusing Motley on the block. But Lazard also had a big day receiving, with multiple catches against star CB Jordan Thomas, including the game-winning score.
Lazard is quick enough, but he’s also powerful. He chucks Thomas’ attempted press off, then goes up to get the ball. It’s not a particularly well-thrown ball, but Lazard’s size and hands give a margin for error.
Iowa State’s running back David Montgomery might be the best back in the league. He had 17 carries for just 55 yards and a score in this game, but he also added seven receptions for 89 yards. Here’s his best run, which brought the Clones a first down on one of the rare occasions when their use of motion should have played into Oklahoma’s hands:
And he helped the Cyclones avoid another disaster on this third down call from the Chief package that the Sooners sniffed out:
Head coach Matt Campbell has the Cyclones in shape to make a leap this season, with a pretty entertaining and lovable cast of characters. Oklahoma clearly wasn't ready for it.