For the first time since the 2009 Insight Bowl, Iowa State’s defense will be without Jake Knott starting at linebacker when it plays Oklahoma on Saturday.
Fortunately, for Cyclone fans, ISU head coach Paul Rhoads has emphasized to his squad not to panic. Instead, Rhoads has preached team defense as he’s done throughout his career, even when he was a defensive coordinator.
“The thing I learned a long time ago when I became a coordinator was that you can’t panic,” Rhoads said. “You try to move three and four guys around, and you’re asking for trouble. I’m not a believer that you absolutely have to get your best 11 guys out on the field; get the guys out there, and play the position, and go play team defense.”
Two linebackers will take the place of Knott on the defensive side of the ball, rotating between Matt Morton and Jevohn Miller. Morton has seen plenty of time out on the field as a redshirt senior and the special teams leader for the past two seasons.
Miller, a true sophomore from Brooklyn, Iowa, saw minimal time on special teams in his only season as a Cyclone. Miller said he’s confident he has the ability to fill that void in the middle of the defense.
“I’m excited,” Miller said. “I’m just ready for the opportunity, and I’m not nervous at all just because I’ve gotten the reps, just not in the game situations. I know I’m going to be ready.”
Playing behind A.J. Klein and Knott in the depth chart leaves big shoes to fill for Miller, but he said that both have taught him every day in practice. Knott even reiterated to Miller that he’d be coaching him from the sidelines.
“I learn something from them every time I step on the field with them,” Miller said. “[Knott] told me when he got hurt, he’d be out there coaching me, and he’s a team player obviously. So, when he gets back on the practice field, he’s just going to be a coach out there and try to help us win each week.”
That ISU defense will have its hands full when Oklahoma’s high-octane offense comes to Ames. The Sooners average 474 yards per game, making them 20th in the nation.
Oklahoma comes to Jack Trice Stadium with only two losses on the season, both to top-five teams. ISU defensive tackle Jake McDonough stressed that the Sooners (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) cannot be overlooked.
“They’re a very good team, and they can’t be overlooked because they’ve had a couple of losses,” McDonough said. “They bring a high-powered offense to the table; they’re fast-paced offense. The tempo is going to be ridiculously fast. With the leadership of Jones back at quarterback, they’re going to bring the heat on Saturday, and we’ve got to respond.”
Led by quarterback Landry Jones on offense, the Sooners have the ability to attack from all angles. Jones only has 12 touchdowns on the year but has thrown for more than 2,000 yards already.
“He is to Oklahoma’s offense what [Knott] and [Klein] are to our defense,” Rhoads said of Jones. “He’s been playing it for a long time; he knows it as well as the coaching staff, and he goes out and plays like it week to week.”
On the ground, the Sooners boast a stable of running backs, four of whom average more than six yards per carry and have scored the ball 21 times.
Oklahoma is one of two teams that Iowa State hasn’t defeated yet in the Rhoads era, along with Kansas State. For a program that is trying to get to the point where it can win consistently rather than rely on upsets, ISU running back Jeff Woody said this is the type of game that is a must-win.
“You don’t want to say it’s a red-letter game, but you want this one,” Woody said. "It gives you validity that you can beat a program. We’re trying to build that respect around the nation; we’re trying to build what we’ve got going.”
The game against Oklahoma kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday and can be seen on ABC.