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Oklahoma Sooners Football: OU’s pass rush will be the key against Iowa State on Saturday

The Sooners can not allow Jacob Park the same luxury they gave Zach Smith two weeks ago.

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Oklahoma v Baylor Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

UPDATE 2: According to The Des Moines Register, Jacob Park has taken a leave of absence from the Iowa State football team. This obviously confirms that he won’t play against Oklahoma on Saturday.

UPDATE: It looks like Iowa State QB Jacob Park did not travel with the team to Norman, confirming parts of earlier reports from Big XII Country and LandGrant Gauntlet.

Original: The last time we saw Oklahoma’s defense, they were trying to stave off a potential game-tying drive from Baylor. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo eventually forced a fumble that was scooped up by Caleb Kelly to secure the win for the Sooners and prevent what could’ve put OU on the wrong side of a colossal upset.

OU allowed Baylor quarterback Zach Smith, who had the lowest completion percentage in the nation entering the game, to pick them apart for 463 yards and four touchdowns. Why was he able to seemingly make any throw he wanted in that game? Simply, he had all day to sit in the pocket and throw. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Smith sat in the pocket for over three seconds, and not a single OU defender ever came close to touching him. A receiver will inevitably break open if you give the play that much time to develop. Luckily, four sacks enabled OU to get a few much-needed stops, but pressure is about more than simply sacking the QB. Baylor has one of the weakest offensive lines in the Big 12, but the Sooners were only able to hurry Smith on four of his 50 pass attempts.

The Sooners have now had two weeks to reflect and recover from a less-than-stellar performance against Baylor, and hopefully Mike Stoops feels confident in his defense’s ability to put that game in the rearview mirror.

This weekend’s Big 12 home opener presents a different challenge in the form of Jacob Park and Iowa State. The Cyclones currently sit at 2-2, but don’t let their record fool you into thinking this will be a total cake walk. Matt Campbell’s team has some skill-position players with big-play potential, and they’re certainly capable of taking advantage of OU’s weaknesses or miscues.

It’s worth noting that a rumor of a Jacob Park suspension surfaced on Thursday. Matt Campbell has denied the report of a suspension, but rumors that he didn’t make the trip keep swirling. If he were to actually end up missing this game, Iowa State would probably go with a bit of a different offensive approach.

Anyway, Park has been a picture of inconsistency so far this season in spite of his arm talent. He threw for 347 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa then got picked off three times and posted a QBR of 18.1 less than two weeks later against Texas. The Longhorns were able to keep Park in check largely thanks to its relentless pass rush. He spent much of the game running for his life and attempting off-balance throws across his body. This was his first interception from the second quarter.

Texas blitzed five players and forced Park to make a throw that he shouldn’t have made, resulting in three picks. I hesitate to say OU should model Texas in any scenario, but the Sooners should employ a similar pass-rush strategy if they want to shut down Iowa State’s offense.

When Park has been given time to throw, he’s been extremely solid. As I mentioned earlier, he threw for 347 yards against a good Iowa State defense a few weeks ago and probably should have come away with a victory. The guy has a live arm, and his targets are good enough to make OU pay if he’s consistently given time to throw.

Much of this responsibility will fall on the interior defensive line, namely Neville Gallimore. A lack of pressure up the middle allows opposing QBs the ability to step up in the pocket and set their feet before they throw. Park is a far less effective passer when he is flushed out of the pocket. In fact, I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t panic with 310-pound Neville Gallimore charging full speed at them. I know I’d certainly be worse at my job if I worked under those conditions.

OU’s inability to pressure the quarterback the past few years was a key reason why Mike Stoops initially decided to shift to the 4-3 this year. The scheme features an extra down lineman, which should theoretically create more pressure. Interior pressure takes away the quarterback’s ability to step up in the pocket and often forces him to scramble or throw on the run.

Despite the shift to the 4-3 being a major talking point during the offseason, the Sooners have rarely utilized it through the first four games. OU only rushed three for much of the Baylor game, which was part of the reason Smith had an abundance of time to hang out in the pocket and find a man open downfield. A three-man rush means you are going to see plenty of double teams. It also puts added pressure on the secondary, who will often be asked to hold coverage for four or five seconds. Any decent receiver will find a way to get open if you give him five seconds to do so. I think we’d all like to see a bit less of that this week.