On a Saturday when four top-five teams kicked off as double-digit favorites in the early window, something was bound to go off script, but no one expected Oklahoma Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield to be out-quarterbacked by a journeyman senior and a converted linebacker.
Senior quarterback Kyle Kempt and Iowa State gashed the Sooners’ defense in the second half and held on late to pull off the biggest upset of the 2017 season so far with a 38–31 win in Norman, toppling one of the Big 12’s two unbeaten teams and shaking up the playoff picture.
Kempt was thrust into the spotlight after Iowa State announced on Friday night that starter Jacob Park was taking a leave of absence due to "personal health issues." Kempt, who had thrown just two passes as a Cyclone after starting his college career at Oregon State and transferring to Hutchinson Community College, put up 343 yards and three touchdowns through the air, including the game-winning 25-yard strike to Allen Lazard with 2:19 to play.
Before those late-game heroics, Kempt helped Iowa State keep up by flipping the ball out into the flats and allowing the Cyclones’ playmakers to do the work. Dutiful downfield blocking by Iowa State receivers sprung long touchdown catch-and-runs by Marchie Murdock and Trever Ryan; Ryan’s 57-yard score gave the Cyclones their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter. That blocking also led to a frustration-fueled unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Sooners linebacker Kenneth Murray that gave Iowa State a free 15 yards during its game-winning drive, capped off by Lazard’s leaping touchdown catch over the outstretched arm of a Sooners cornerback.
The Cyclones also got a huge lift from Joel Lanning, who spent most of 2016 as the team’s starting quarterback before coach Matt Campbell asked him to switch to middle linebacker. Lanning returned to the backfield on Saturday to throw two completions for 25 yards and carry the ball nine times for 35 more yards, then hurried Mayfield on his last-gasp fourth-down throw that fell incomplete.
After sending Ohio State’s offense to the brink of an existential crisis in a 31–16 Week 2 win in Columbus, the Sooners’ defense has taken a big step back when faced with middling-at-best Big 12 competition. Baylor sophomore Zach Smith threw for 463 yards and four touchdowns as the still-winless Bears pushed Oklahoma to the limit in a 49–41 Sooners win. Saturday marked the most points Iowa State had scored against Oklahoma since 1989, a defensive effort that puts the microscope right back on defensive coordinator Mike Stoops after his unit had gotten off to a solid start this season.
The defense won’t be the only target of criticism this week in Norman. A fumbled exchange between Mayfield and running back Trey Sermon spoiled a red-zone trip on Oklahoma’s first possession of the second half, and Iowa State responded with a seven-play, 94-yard drive to tie the game. This result also sours Lincoln Riley’s unbeaten September that had fans believing the Sooners had transitioned seamlessly after Bob Stoops’ surprise retirement over the summer.
In the first year of the Big 12’s reinstated conference title game, the league looks to be headed for another muddled top tier that could give the College Football Playoff selection committee headaches. Both of the frontrunners in the Sooner State have now taken conference losses before their schedule even tightens up, and Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia have all sustained non-conference losses that indicate more setbacks are ahead. TCU is now the Big 12’s last unbeaten team—and the Horned Frogs head to Ames at the end of the month.