AMES, Iowa — As improved as the Iowa State football team looked against a juggernaut of an opponent like fifth-ranked Oklahoma, coach Matt Campbell easily pinpointed the deficiencies.
The team that took the field for its first home game of the season was a far cry from the one that left Iowa City last weekend, but things weren’t sharp enough.
Oklahoma has a plethora of offensive weapons and an improving defense, but the three-pronged wishlist of improvements had to do more with the Cyclones than the Sooners.
“It’s all those margins,” Campbell said after ISU’s 37-27 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday. “It’s spatial football, which is the first time we had to play that way this year; it’s certainly the opportunity from our end of it that offensive line has to keep growing, keep plugging away; and then at the end of it special teams. Those are the keys to success here.”
Kyler Murray, the do-it-all quarterback for the Sooners (3-0), looked the part of a Heisman candidate while going 21 of 29 passing for 348 yards and three touchdowns — including a 75-yard bomb to Marquise Brown — with 15 carries for 77 yards to boot.
His Cyclones (0-2) counterpart wasn’t too bad either.
In his second-career start, sophomore Zeb Noland was 25 of 36 passing for 360 yards, two touchdowns and a late interception on a desperation heave. The offense, particularly along the line, is taking positive steps, but the rhythm needs to be more consistent.
“We capitalized off it a little bit,” said David Montgomery, who ran 21 times for 91 yards with a score. “We didn’t come out with a win, but at the end of the day the scoreboard didn’t matter. We got better. We really stressed getting better every day this week, and I feel like we did that. I’m prepared to get to tomorrow so we can get to work, man.”
Moving Julian Good-Jones to left tackle and sliding Colin Newell to center could be the remedy for that group. Things were far from perfect, but it’s the step Campbell wanted to see from Week 1 to Week 2. There were still some gnawing lapses, though.
The first offensive drive that was stalled by a penalty, a would-be touchdown catch by Butler that was dropped and a reception by Landen Akers — which could have gone the distance — are all potential game-changing moments.
"It was a situation where some self-inflicted wounds (were apparent and) you’re talking a team that has outstanding athleticism,” Campbell said. “I thought spatially we weren’t great early in the football game and it cost us at times. But I thought we settled in, linebackers and safeties included. I thought we played much better in the second half than we did the first half.”
Murray is a handful. Trey Sermon and Marcelias Sutton are elusive backs, and Brown and CeeDee Lamb are reliable targets. ISU’s tackling, and miscommunication in coverage, though, is something that has to be addressed.
Greg Eisworth was everywhere, tallying 14 tackles with a tackle for loss and a forced fumble but saw miscues that at times turned into big plays. Sermon’s 22-yard touchdown run in the third quarter looked like a game of pinball.
“It goes both ways, honestly,” Eisworth said of the OU talent and ISU miscues. “Their receiving corps is really good and shifty in the open field. A lot of times it was us ducking our head or whatever, but a lot of plays made by them, and a lot of missed opportunities by us.”
ISU went down 10-0 after the first quarter. Despite 9 minutes, 6 seconds of possession, a 2 of 6 combined mark on third and fourth-down conversions kept the Cyclones’ tires spinning in the mud. A 34-yard field goal from Connor Assalley trimmed the lead early in the second.
The defense helped gain some traction when OU receiver Grant Calcaterra fumbled a 28-yard catch after a tackle from Eisworth with Richard Bowens pouncing on it. On ISU’s first play, Noland hit Hakeem Butler for a 51-yard touchdown to tie the game 10-all.
Oklahoma responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive on its next possession, and extended its lead to two scores with five seconds remaining in the half. The Sooners scored on each of its possessions in the second half when directly following an ISU score.
“When they made plays and they got momentum, not even just offensively, we responded as a team,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “When it got close, we separated back out and got contributions from all three sides. I think we’ll take confidence in that.”
Oklahoma is likely the best team ISU will see the rest of the season, but after a home date with Akron next weekend, Big 12 play will be unrelenting and unforgiving. The sense of urgency to see more growth is high, but so is the upside Campbell saw, even in a loss.
“I know there’s a lot of improvement that must get made if we’re going to win games like that and we’re going to have continued opportunities,” he said. “It’s like I told our kids, we just have to continue plugging away, we’ve got to keep pounding and if we do it we’ll get where we need to be when we need to be there.”