By MURRAY EVANS
NORMAN — The lot of most offensive linemen is to toil away, play after play, with their work mostly going unrecognized unless something goes wrong. But Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard isn’t a typical lineman.
Gregarious and funny, Ikard has overcome his often-obscure playing position to become the face of the Sooners - a spot usually reserved for a quarterback, running back or other star player.
The senior from Oklahoma City is the go-to player for reporters for his thoughts not just on Oklahoma football, but for subjects as diverse as a controversy involving the Oklahoma band’s pre-game routine to the fortunes of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder to wistfully wondering about what his celebration might be like if he ever actually scored a touchdown.
So, naturally, he was front-and-center this week for No. 22 Oklahoma (7-2, 4-2 Big 12 Conference) as they prepare for their home finale on Saturday against Iowa State (1-8, 0-6).
“Normally you don’t see offensive linemen speaking in front of people that much,” Ikard said this week. “But I’ve taken pride in the way I’ve represented myself and represented my family and represented this university. Something I hold dear to my heart is being able to represent this place well.”
Ikard would seem to be a coach’s dream. At 6-foot-3 and 298 pounds, he has the size and versatility to play multiple positions on the offensive line, and play them well. He was an All-America third-team selection in 2011 and an All-Big 12 pick last season. He’s also an academic standout.
Ikard is “as smart as they come as a football player and, obviously, in the classroom as well,” Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “You’ve seen all the awards he’s won. He’s a guy that cares deeply for this program. It meant something for him to come and play and it means something to him every day. That’s why you see him prepare in practice the way that he does every single day. ... He has a bright future ahead of him in the game of football and in the game of life as well.”
Ikard started at left guard for the Sooners the final 12 games of the 2010 season and hasn’t left the starting lineup since. As a sophomore, he started six games at guard and seven at center, replacing the injured Ben Habern, and last season, he made a permanent move to center. Against Iowa State, he’ll make his 47th straight start.
This season, Ikard has been the centerpiece of a line that helped the Sooners post a pair of 300-yard rushing games to open the season. With a bevy of senior running backs in Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, Oklahoma ranks No. 21 in the Bowl Subdivision in rushing offense at 217.7 yards per game.
“Gabe Ikard did it all last year as well,” Stoops said. “He’s the guy that handles it best. Gabe can do anything. He’s pretty special.”
That said, the Sooners have struggled to run the ball in their two losses this season, which has made it challenging for junior quarterback Blake Bell to successfully pass the football. Last Thursday against No. 5 Baylor, Oklahoma managed only 87 yards rushing and 237 yards of offense in a 41-12 loss.
Those outside the program have laid much of the blame on Bell and the play-calling of co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, although Stoops has defended both of them.
Ikard said the offensive line didn’t do its job against the Bears and that was a big reason for the Sooners’ offensive struggles.
“The way we played on Thursday is not going to help any quarterback, no matter who you put behind us,” Ikard said.
Ikard’s willingness to take responsibility has endeared him to teammates and coaches. His answers are usually thoughtful and detailed, without giving away the inner workings of the Oklahoma program.
“For me to be a team captain, be able to speak in front of you great people, it’s something, it’s one of those things where coach (Bob) Stoops has put a lot of trust in me and I feel a lot of responsibility to represent this place well and make us look good,” Ikard said.
Ikard acknowledges being a sentimental sort and said he likely will be emotional on Saturday when he takes the field at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium for the final time.
“I always wanted to play here as a kid,” Ikard said. “I loved it. For this to be my last game is going to take a while to soak in. I’m sure I’ll cry like a little schoolgirl after it, but I’m excited about it. One last experience out there is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Iowa State at No. 22 Oklahoma
When: Saturday at 11 a.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium in Norman.
Radio: KMOD, FM-97.5.
TV: Fox Sports 1.
Line: Oklahoma by 24.
Series record: Oklahoma 70-5-2.
At stake: With its Big 12 Conference title hopes effectively extinguished after a loss at Baylor, Oklahoma will look to rebound against a foe it traditionally has dominated. The Sooners still have the carrots of a potential 10-win season and a quality bowl bid to motivate them. Iowa State wants to end a 14-game losing streak against the Sooners.
Key matchup: If Iowa State is able to keep the game close, it likely will need help from its special teams — an area in which Oklahoma hasn't excelled this season. Oklahoma's opponents are averaging 24.1 yards per kickoff return and 16.8 yards per punt return. The Sooners gave up a punt return for a touchdown in a loss to Texas and Iowa State has two players who have kickoff returns for a score this season in DeVondrick Nealy and Jarvis West.
Players to watch
Iowa State: Nealy has scored a touchdown in four consecutive games — in three different ways. He caught a touchdown pass against Baylor and scored rushing touchdowns against Oklahoma State and Kansas State before returning the second-half kickoff against TCU. He's the Cyclones' first player since 2011 to have a TD in four straight games.
Oklahoma: LB Frank Shannon, who led the Sooners with 15 tackles last week against Baylor despite missing practice most of that week due to an injury. Shannon's role has become more important and more pronounced since senior linebacker Corey Nelson suffered a season-ending injury.
Notes: With a win, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops would tie Barry Switzer's Oklahoma record for coaching wins at 157. Iowa State hasn't won in Norman since 1990 . If the Sooners can rush for 200 or more yards, they'll probably win — they're 60-1 under Stoops while doing so, while Iowa State is 1-13 under coach Paul Rhodes when giving up 200 or more rushing yards . Against TCU, Iowa State started its eighth different offensive-line combination in nine games, involving 10 players. The Cyclones haven't had a single offensive lineman start every game, mostly due to injuries . Iowa State's starting center, Tom Farniok, and Oklahoma backup offensive tackle Derek Farniok are brothers.