The date was Oct. 7, 2017.
Iowa State arrived in Norman a 31-point underdog to Oklahoma and left with arguably the most stunning upset in either program’s history.
The Cyclones’ 38-31 victory didn’t just force the Sooners to rally for a College Football Playoff berth — it required them to rethink how they would approach a defense well suited to ground Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid offense.
The Cyclones had success dropping players into coverage instead of focusing on a pass rush. The result was a secondary that looked more like a mine field of defenders.
“I mean, really, you gotta just take chunks, get what they give you and build drives all the way down the field and get in the end zone,” OU receiver Lee Morris said. “They're not gonna let you go deep and then obviously you want to, but you gotta take what they give you.”
OU’s defense bore most of the blame from a 48-41 loss at Kansas State two weeks ago and will be watched closely for how it rebounds this week, with Big 12 and College Football Playoff hopes both at risk.
But quarterback Jalen Hurts and the OU offense have a mighty test too.
Even Baker Mayfield, while putting up 319 yards passing in the 2017 loss to the Cyclones, struggled to finish drives and pick apart Iowa State’s defensive scheme when it mattered. OU’s well of success in that first half — four consecutive touchdown drives — eventually dried up to the tune of just seven second-half points.
It was a combination of self-inflicted mistakes and lack of experience against a defensive strategy other teams have mimicked since.
“It’s definitely been a trend in this league. Not like everybody’s gone wholesale to it, but you see some form or fashion of it from a lot of people in this league,” Riley said. “What they do is good and Iowa State’s unique enough that it’s like anything else, you can go copy a few parts of it. But they know what they’re doing, they know their adjustments. Their kids play it extremely well and play their tails off. It’s a good combination.”
Riley isn’t sure if having seen it more frequently works to OU’s advantage now. But it’s notable that Kyler Murray helped the Sooners gain 519 yards of offense, 347 passing yards and 37 points in a win over the Cylcones in Ames a year ago.
Now Hurts faces the ultimate test in passing patience.
“I think Iowa State does a good job. I think they're coached well,” Hurts said. “I think they are very disciplined and they've got really good players. We've got to be ready for the challenge at hand.”
Hurts didn’t mention the specific challenge he’ll face.
Iowa State boasts a different style of play than he’s seen this season.
“It’s a unique defense you don’t see very often,” OU offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Bill Bedenbaugh said. “Some teams dabble in it, but they don’t do it as well as they do. There’s not many guys in the [tackle] box. But they’re going to get different safeties down, different support people. It’s just a matter of finding out who those guys are and identifying them and blocking them.”
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit has been more than impressed with Hurts’ season, with one exception — something that will matter first against Iowa State, then next week at Baylor, which leads the Big 12 in pass defense efficiency.
“I think one of the knocks on Jalen was never about his ability to throw the ball, it was about his ability to sit in that pocket and be able to work through progressions,” Herbstreit said this week. “And I think that if you watch him in the Kansas State game or games where they're not quite hitting on all cylinders, I think that's still an area that I think he's growing of the that's not just something that a coach tells you, hey, sit in that pocket and work through your progressions, that's something you have to rep and continue to do.”