Iowa State Cyclones running back Eli Sanders (6) bracks a tackle from Oklahoma State defenders and runs for a first down during the fourth 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 — Eli Sanders patiently plodded behind his blockers. Then Iowa State’s sophomore running back sprinted toward the edge, leaping toward the pylon to make brief, though momentous, contact with the orange rectangle.
The result? Sanders’ first career rushing touchdown late in last Saturday’s 34-27 Big 12 season-opening win over Oklahoma State.
The upshot of his seven-yard run? The Cyclones had finally experienced a modicum of success in the running game against an FBS opponent — a slight opening they seek to expand as heavy underdogs against No. 14 Oklahoma at 6 p.m. Saturday (FS1) at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
“It’s a great defense,” said Sanders, who emerged as ISU’s most productive rusher against the Cowboys with 15 carries for 58 yards and the first touchdown scored by a running back this season. “A great D-line. Great safeties. Great linebackers. So it’s gonna take all of what we can give.”
And then some. The Cyclones (2-2, 1-0 Big 12) failed to come close to amassing 100 yards on the ground for the third straight game but found far greater success with Sanders — who missed the previous two games because of injury — than anyone else.
ISU will need to form at least a semblance of a running attack Saturday against the Sooners (4-0, 1-0), who allow just 2.7 yards per carry and lead the Big 12 in scoring defense at 8.5 points allowed per game.
So both points and ground gains should be tough to come by for the Cyclones, who opened up the passing game to clip the Cowboys in the conference opener.
“You can’t just say, ‘We’re gonna be this, or we’re gonna be that.’” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said. “You’ve got to have the ability to adapt and I do think we’re doing a really good job of adapting right now.”
That meant relying on redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht’s arm to end a two-game skid last weekend — and he thrived in that heightened role by throwing for a career-best 348 yards and three touchdowns.
Campbell said Becht’s “earned the right” to more fully control the offense, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be asked to simply sling the ball down the field. ISU’s offense depends on a measured approach that can’t function without some runs sprinkled in. That’s where Sanders, Cartevious Norton and Abu Sama come in.
Norton has started at tailback each week, but he sustained what appeared to be a shoulder injury early against Oklahoma State and did not return. Campbell said he did practice on Tuesday, however, so however backfield opportunities are split against the Sooners, a healthy Sanders at least furnishes the Cyclones with an additional option — especially if Norton suffers a setback this week.
“Eli is a whisker away from hitting a couple of big ones (last) Saturday,” Campbell said. “And he had a couple of 10 to 12-yard runs that were a shoelace away from being big ones, so I think just for us, it’s the consistency of putting it all together, whether it’s up the middle or just our running game in general.”
ISU’s shown that simply establishing a modest threat on the ground can create daylight in the passing game to form a winning formula in league play. Achieving that delicate balance against the Sooners — one of 13 teams nationally to boast 10 or more takeaways this season — becomes exponentially more difficult, but Becht, Sanders and the rest of the Cyclones’ suddenly-productive offense embrace that stern challenge.
“We’re gonna practice our butts off and do what we need to do to prepare for this game,” Becht said. “And I think that’s what we need. We can’t look at the outside stuff, news, social media, stuff like that. We’re going in there to win.”