Despite the well-deserved reputation Iowa State has as a consistently tough, well-prepared defensive unit, the Cyclones haven't been especially good in that department this season after replacing six defensive starters.
The adjusted metrics don't care that much for the defense...
Though using the advanced statistics to evaluate the Iowa State defense suffers considerably from the lack of a fourth game played yet, the adjusted and unadjusted numbers both reveal some weaknesses. The opponents haven't helped, as the unadjusted S&P has the Cyclones at 69 nationally, while the adjusted numbers drop them to 95.
The run defense and pass defense have been equally mediocre, sitting in the 70s, but the area that really stands out is the lack of success on passing downs, where Iowa State ranks 101st. Indeed, the Iowa State defense has allowed opponents to convert 45% of their first downs, a number worse than Texas that ranks 103rd nationally.
On the flip side, the defense has been efficient keeping opponents out of the end zone, sitting at No. 52 in points per possession, a number reflected in the 25 points per game allowed on average.
The Cyclones aren't creating negative plays...
With less than five tackles for loss per game, the Cyclones rank near the bottom fourth of the country in creating the type of negative plays that kill drives. Throw in only four sacks through the first three games and it becomes apparent that success for Iowa State is predicated more on reducing big plays than it is in creating big plays.
Further good news for Texas is that starter Case McCoy has reduced his sack ratio along with his interception rate this season. Where last year he was sacked on 7.8% of his dropbacks, a rough calculation that adds his sacks to his overall attempts and doesn't factor in the scrambles that aren't an especially big part of the game with the exception of his run against Texas A&M, McCoy this season has reduced that number to 3.4%, more than cutting his rate in half.
And the Texas offensive line hasn't exactly been stellar in pass protection this season, a fact to which David Ash can attest after he was hit numerous times on dropbacks against BYU, the best front that the Horns will see all season. In all, the Longhorns have been giving up more negative plays and sacks than they did last season, when the improvement in that area helped the offense become one of the more efficient units in the country.
Texas can't afford to turn the ball over...
The record for Iowa State on Thursdays is 7-2 over the years and they have also outscored opponents by 52 points off of turnovers in weekday games.
The odd thing about the Cyclones this season is that six of the seven turnovers gained have been recovered fumbles, even though the team has only forced four. Weather conditions that may include thunderstorms during the game could impact the ability of Texas to protect the football, helping to sustain the type of fumble recovery rate that may not be sustainable across an entire season (Iowa State's rate is 75%, a number only seven teams matched or exceeded last season).
The Texas players have to be cognizant of protecting the football, something that nearly hurt the team against Kansas State when Kendall Sanders fumbled on the game's first kickoff return due to poor ball security.
And, of course, the lack of interceptions from McCoy has been a topic of discussion in this space ever since he made it through the Ole Miss game unscathed. Has he turned the corner or has he simply been lucky so far this year?
The Iowa State game may be telling, as the Cyclones have had two weeks to prepare for the Longhorns, even though most of the defensive game plan was put in place before David Ash was declared out for the game on Wednesday. Some of the defensive strategy for Iowa State may depend on the availability and health of wide receiver Mike Davis, the top Texas deep threat.
But if the Cyclones opt to play press coverage on the outside to make McCoy beat them over the top, it could close down the passing lanes that were surprisingly available against Ole Miss and Kansas State for McCoy.
About that bellwether play...
If Davis is out or limited, the Cyclones will probably play Cover 3 to devote an extra player to the box in order to stop the Texas running game that got going against Kansas State as the left side of the line often collapsed the Kansas State defensive line, creating massive holes through which Johnathan Gray could run, mostly on inside zone plays, sometimes packaged with other passing concepts.
Running effectively with that play against a stacked box would mean a long day for Iowa State defensively. The Cyclones have given up 4.40 yards per carry this season, though much of that was attributable to giving up 6.91 yards per carry to Northern Iowa in the opener.
In other words, it will probably be more difficult for Texas to win so decisively at the line of scrimmage if Iowa State chooses to provide a numbers advantage in the box. The good news for the oft-maligned Horns offensive line is that the Cyclones front is rather undersized with a converted 6'5 defensive end playing defensive tackle at 270 pounds and a 222-pound starting defensive end.
The Cyclones limit big plays...
This is a hallmark of Rhoads' defenses. They know where they are supposed to be, they get to the football to the best of their ability, which is often rather limited compared to a school like Texas, and they don't make the type of big mistakes that consistently lead to massive breakdowns and big plays for opponents.
In fact, Iowa State gives up just under 13 plays per game this season of 10 or more yards, in contrast to 16.25 for Texas. Of those plays, only one has gone for 40 or more yards.
The return of Daje Johnson, and with it the Pod or Diamond formation that was effective at times early in the season should help Texas, especially if they add Jalen Overstreet or Tyrone Swoopes to that equation. And Johnson was effective over the middle against New Mexico State, an area of the field that Iowa State could choose to close off based on their coverage choices, which will likely include some press coverage on the outside, regardless of whether they play with one or two deep safeties.
If they do opt for Cover 2, do they have a safety still bite hard on run fakes with McCoy's ability to produce long throws limited by his lack of arm strength? Or do they simply opt for a Cover 3 look that would make more sense based on the need to stop the run?
The lack of a running threat at the quarterback position also plays into things. Ole Miss was able to shut down the Texas running game with an undersized line by slanting and twisting, which caused a ridiculous amount of confusion among the Longhorns linemen.
If Iowa State opts to slant and twist against Texas, will the offensive line deal with those tactics poorly as they did agains the Rebels or effectively as they did against the Wildcats?
Perhaps this section should have been titled, "Unanswerable questions."
With Ash at quarterback, the Longhorns would be able to force the Cyclone defense to make difficult decisions about where they want to divert resources, leaving play caller Major Applewhite with responses to each allocation. With McCoy at quarterback, Applewhite has significantly fewer answers, and the Cyclones left therefore with more options for how to defend the Longhorns.
For Texas offensively, much of this game will be determined by the offensive line and whether they can assert themselves against a front against which they should have an advantage.