Iowa State Cyclones’ quarterback Rocco Becht (3) passes the ball around Oklahoma State Cowboys defensive end Nathan Latu (92) during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Razor-thin margins. High-end quarterbacks. Heart-pounding defensive stops.
Iowa State’s seen it all in its past three trips to Oklahoma — including a rousing 38-31 win over the Sooners as 31-point underdogs in 2017.
But can current Cyclone starting quarterback Rocco Becht channel his inner Kyle Kempt — the walk-on who led ISU to that unlikely upset? Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is certain: Becht feels ready for the challenge posed in Saturday’s 6 p.m. Big 12 matchup with the No. 14 Sooners (4-0, 1-0) in Norman.
“I feel like (my leadership) goes up whenever I see the trust (of) this offense and this team in me,” said Becht, who threw for a career-high 348 yards and three touchdowns for the Cyclones (2-2, 1-0) in last week’s 34-27 win over Oklahoma State. “When I see that, it just gives me more of an ability to speak up, speak my opinion, and having the trust in them is a big confidence booster. So we’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing.”
In recent meetings with Oklahoma, that’s translated into navigating through close games. ISU is 2-6 against the Sooners since Matt Campbell took over the program in 2016 and seven of those games have been decided by 10 or fewer points. They’ve also featured an array of elite quarterbacks, including current NFL starters Brock Purdy, Jalen Hurts and Baker Mayfield. Purdy — who set dozens of records as a Cyclone from 2018-21 and leads the San Francisco 49ers’ offense — outplayed this season’s Heisman Trophy contender, Caleb Williams (who is now at USC), in a 28-21 loss in Norman two years ago.
So big names have taken center stage in ISU’s clashes with Oklahoma in recent years and now Becht squares off against efficient and seemingly unflappable Sooners playcaller Dillon Gabriel, who will make his 42nd career start on Saturday.
“He can make all the throws,” Cyclone defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “A very talented veteran. Been there and done that, so a great challenge for us.”
Gabriel, who transferred to Oklahoma from Central Florida two seasons ago, boasts 19 career 300-plus yard passing games. Becht, a redshirt freshman, is coming off his first 300-yard effort in four career starts. Both enjoy a full complement of downfield weapons, but Oklahoma’s receivers group appears deeper. Eight different Sooners have caught touchdown passes this season, led by Nic Anderson, who’s turned eight coaches into four trips to the end zone.
“They are a football team that’s clicking on all cylinders right now,” Campbell said. “Certainly on the offensive side of the football and then on the defensive side, really talented, really young. So it’s a huge week for us to continue to move forward.”
Or take a dreaded step backward. The Becht-led offensive revival against the Cowboys must turn into a trend, not an aberration, and Oklahoma’s allowing just 8.5 points per game, which ranks second nationally. The Sooners are also tied for fifth nationally in turnover margin (plus-seven), so disrupting Gabriel’s well-established rhythm (12 touchdown passes to just one interception) is of paramount concern for the Cyclones’ young defensive front seven.
“We have no choice but to take it up a notch,” ISU sophomore nose guard Domonique Orange said. “I feel as if pressure is not enough. Especially for our D-line. We have a high standard. Get sacks. Get (tackles for loss). Do anything we need to get that player down. In my opinion, hurries aren’t enough. We’ve got to do better.”
That’s true across the board, but especially as 20-point underdogs against a Sooners team that’s riding high after going 6-7 last season. Shoddy defense doomed Oklahoma to its first losing mark since 1988, but that side of the ball has been shored up — as this season’s statistics and results demonstrate.
So the pressure falls squarely on Becht. Just as the 6-1, 205-pounder from Wesley Chapel, Fla. likes it. Trusting the coaches, trusting his teammates, trusting his instincts.
“I feel like they’ve gained a lot more trust in me to be able to do the hard stuff,” Becht said. “So I’m gonna do whatever they want me to do to help this team win.”