On the one hand, a Thursday night road game against Iowa State wouldn't seem to offer much in the way of preparing a team for an 11 am battle with OU in the Cotton Bowl. But then again, as miserable as the last three Red River Shootouts have been, I'm all for something different.
The Cyclones weren't on Texas' 2009 conference schedule, but it was Iowa State that sent Texas into a horrific tailspin in 2010. After the Longhorns rebounded from back-to-back defeats against UCLA and OU with a stunning upset of #5 Nebraska in Lincoln, Paul Rhoads game Cyclones' squad earned a 28-21 victory in Austin that would be the first of four consecutive Longhorns losses.
The Longhorns have fared much better in the two seasons since, as Case McCoy and David Ash teamed up in a rout of the Cyclones in 2011, while last year's 33-7 victory featured the team's inspiring on-field tribute to Darrell Royal.
How likely is Texas to make it three in a row versus Iowa State? Heading into the 2013 season, a much deeper and more experienced Longhorns squad looked to be heavy favorites in their match up with the Cyclones, who on top of losing six starters on defense are breaking in a new starter under center, after charismatic quarterback Steele Jantz exhausted his eligibility after last season.
Teams take a Paul Rhoads squad for granted at their own peril, however. Jantz had his virtues and at his best was a dangerous playmaker, but his overall value was greatly diminished by his inconsistency and high turnover rate. Taking over this fall is sophomore Sam Richardson, a 6-2, 205-pound dual threat quarterback out of Winter Park, FL who impressed in limited action as a freshman last season, throwing 8 touchdowns and just 1 interception across 78 pass attempts, while adding 233 yards and 1 touchdown across 41 carries on the ground.
The Cyclones are just 1-2 after opening the season with home losses to Northern Iowa and Iowa before Friday's 38-21 win over Tulsa, but Richardson has fared pretty well so far this year, as well, having completed 63% of his passes for 757 yards and 7 touchdowns, against 3 picks. Where he's been less effective is as a rusher, where his 5.7 yards per carry average last year has dipped to 2.6 in the early part of this season. No one will confuse Richardson for Vince Young, but he's dangerous with his feet and as a rusher reminds me of none other than... David Ash. In the good news department for Texas, Kansas State served as a nice prep match up for Richardson and Iowa State.
Beyond Richardson's competencies, the other factor preventing the Longhorns from being the heavy favorite it looked to be heading into the season is Texas' injury situation. On defense, the Longhorns lost their best player -- linebacker Jordan Hicks -- for the season, and the secondary appears likely to be without Quandre Diggs (leg injury) in Ames. And on offense, it would be highly surprising if quarterback David Ash sees the field against the Cycles after being removed halfway through the Kansas State game with lingering concussion-related symptoms, while both Mike Davis and Daje Johnson are probable to return this week but may still be somewhat limited.
Other than the outcome of the game, the single most important question concerning Texas' match up with Iowa State is, of course, how it impacts the following week's match up with OU. Texas hasn't suffered a blow in the conference standings yet, and again, teams take a Paul Rhoads squad for granted at their peril, but following the disastrous non-conference losses to BYU and Ole Miss, the fact of the matter is that the one and only thing that could salvage this season is a victory over Oklahoma. And in any event, winning the Big 12 and defeating the Sooners are two sides of the same coin.
The question for Thursday night, then, is how best to play Iowa State in order to (a) win the game and (b) prepare for OU?
Front and center among all the questions is what to do at quarterback. Assuming that David Ash is not available to play against Iowa State, does Texas roll exclusively with Case McCoy at quarterback? Is it time to mix in some looks for Jalen Overstreet? Can the Longhorns afford to redshirt Tyrone Swoopes? Can they afford to burn his redshirt?
Similarly, Texas' coaches will have to decide how to deploy Mike Davis and Daje Johnson as they return from injury. Assuming both play on Thursday night, should Texas be cautious about their usage against the Cyclones, aiming to preserve the health of both for the Cotton Bowl? And then more broadly, what should Texas' approach be with respect to saving things for the OU game? Should the Longhorns keep things vanilla so the Sooners can't prepare for what they're going to see?
There's room for debate with all of these questions, but I personally favor adopting an assertive, comprehensive game plan against Iowa State. For a variety of reasons, I've always thought it a mistake to hold back big blocks of plays and/or players until OU. To begin with, there is a learning curve that the Cotton Bowl is no place to start trying to ascend; players need to feel confident in and familiar with themselves and the plays they're running, and that only happens with practice. Game practice.
Moreover, a vanilla approach has the opposite of the intended effect: rather than making things harder for the Sooners (because they won't have seen it before), the Plain Jane approach simplifies things for OU's defenders, allowing them to play fast and react without thinking. In fact, you want opposing defenders to be forced to have to think out there, because thinking introduces hesitation. Thinking slows you down.
As for the redshirt question, I understand the argument for preserving Swoopes' reshirt, and I'd be fine with it if that's the route we go. Given the upside of Jalen Overstreet as a rusher, and the limited upside of the football team for this season -- with two losses already under its belt already -- I can sympathize with those who argue that one of Swoopes' seasons of eligibility should not wasted on the 2013 season. That being said, I can't help but wonder about making decisions today based on what might be best for the team in 2017 (Swoopes' potential redshirt senior season), given the amount of time and volume of unknowns. On average, it seems likely a team would get more out of a QB's career who spends a season redshirting than it would from one who has to play as a true freshman, but I'd be curious what an empirical study of that question revealed. At the least, I suspect that there are some trade offs that make it less a cut-and-dry question than it's often presented as being.
In any event, whether it's how we use Overstreet or Swoopes to supplement the limitations of Case McCoy, or how we showcase Daje Johnson and Mike Davis without breaking them, Major Applewhite's mission in Ames is to be as aggressive as possible without being reckless. Sad to say, there are good reasons to question whether our coaching staff understands the difference between the two, but a good game plan will feature a lot more constraint plays and aggressive use of our most dangerous personnel in ways that will force an Oklahoma defender to have to think. And, hopefully, to hesitate.
Because as we all know from watching the last two Texas defenses, a half-step of hesitation is the difference between a 5-yard gain and a 55-yard touchdown.