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Texas Longhorns Game Week: Five Things to Watch Against Iowa State

Horns_bullet_mediumWill Greg Davis once again devise an opponent-specific gameplan? This question was at the heart of PB's recent post and also at the heart of much criticism early in the season when the Longhorns appeared willing to run the same random set of plays against any defense they encountered.

For the Iowa State game specifically, it would be disappointing if Davis didn't seek to attack the Cyclones with the downfield passing game, both to take advantage of what appeared to be a strength of Garrett Gilbert until the coaches shackled him this fall and to take advantage of an Iowa State defense that has generated only a handful of sacks on the entire season -- Gilbert should have plenty of time to stand tall in the pocket to make long throws.

To set up the downfield passing game, Iowa State could find themselves facing a heavy dose of the Texas running game as the offensive line seeks to build on the strong performance last week. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the blowouts they have suffered this season, the Cyclones rank near the bottom of the NCAA in rush defense, giving up more than five yards per carry and 219 yards per game. In fact, only one team in the country has faced more rushing attempts this season -- the Wyoming Cowboys.

Another game featuring the random play generator will almost certainly erode most, if not all, of the goodwill created by the gameplan last week.

Horns_bullet_mediumCan the defense/special teams start creating touchdowns? A year after the turnovers came in bunches, Will Muschamp's unit is still struggling to make the same kind of game-changing plays that defined games like Oklahoma State. Nebraska, for instance, put the ball on the ground five times last week and the Longhorns only recovered one of those fumbles.

Clearly, the loss of Earl Thomas is a major factor; the odd thing is that since the Wyoming game, when Texas came down with two interceptions out of bounds, this season hasn't been a repeat of 2008, when defensive backs were in position to make plays and struggled to come down with the football -- there haven't even been many opportunities in the last several games, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Likewise, after a litany of blocked punts and touchdowns in the return game, the special teams units have yet to get on the scoreboard. The kickoff return game looks like a lost cause given the overall lock of blocking with the group, which may be impacted by the new rules outlawing the three-man wedge, though Malcolm Williams as a lead blocker could help. Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams avoided any turnovers last week (huzzah!) and Brown in particular looks like he might be close to breaking a big return. A couple close calls early in the season still have not resulted in a single blocked punt this season.

Can the Longhorns reverse the trend against Iowa State? The Cyclones have protected the football well this season, committing only nine turnovers, good for 25th in the country, so the overall stats aren't encouraging there. What is more encouraging is that seven of those nine turnovers have come through the air, so perhaps this is the time for the Texas secondary to step up.

Horns_bullet_mediumWill a receiver ever step up this season? Kirk Bohls lambasted the current group of Texas pass-catchers this week in his column. And why not? Malcolm Williams made the only reception by a Texas wide receiver against Nebraska, for a paltry five-yard gain.

At this point, it looks like Williams is what he is, a fantastically talented athlete who will always struggle to catch the football. At this point, it looks like James Kirkendoll is what he is, a frontrunner who can make plays against weak opponents, but will struggle in big games, the fourth-down catch against Ohio State being the exception. For whatever reason, perhaps because of his track commitments and an injury that limited him during fall practice, Marquise Goodwin has not developed as expected this season.

Several young receivers provide the only modicum of hope at this point -- DeSean Hales, who looked like he had a strong connection at times with Garrett Gilbert and has not received a chance at playing time and two true freshmen. MIke Davis has been slowed down by the injury he sustained in the Texas Tech, but is known for running crisp routes and for his ability after the catch, displayed prominently in his break-out peformance against Texas Tech.

Darius White had what looked like a touchdown catch ruled incomplete in the Wyoming game and has made a few appearances since with little impact. His development was slowed last season by the lack of a real quarterback on his high school team and he may be a year away from really contributing. Concern by the coaching staff about the special teams workload of Malcolm Williams may afford him an opportunity and his combination of size and speed could make him effective in the downfield passing game.

Horns_bullet_mediumWill the team maintain the intensity from last week? Mack Brown has spoken several times over the last couple years about how well the team seems to respond to playing in hostile environments. They seem to relish quieting opposing crowds and come together as a team in the face of venemous fanbases. It was certainly the case last week against Nebraska.

A lot of it may have to do with the fact that DKR provides little or no home-field advantage for the team in terms of intimidating opponents with crowd noise. Tepid support in generall and especially for games that have an early kickoff could be a factor in sucking the life out of the team and failing to provide them with the same edge gained on the road.

There seems to be enough to that theory that Brown, as he often is forced to do, called out the Texas fans and encouraged them to at least attempt to make an impact on Saturday morning. The reality of the situation is that most of the fans will struggle to get into their seats before halfways through the first quarter and likely won't make much noise when they do get there.

Texas will have to motivate itself to avoid a letdown after the emotional win over Nebraska last week and Texas fans will continue to provide little to no support in the form of turning DKR into a hostile environment.

Horns_bullet_mediumWho among the walking wounded will contribute? The Nebraska game was a tough physical contest that saw Keenan Robinson and Kenny Vaccaro both leave with concussions, while Emmanuel Acho and Curtis Brown both got dinged up. Mike Davis and John Chiles on the offensive side of the ball were still not able to contribute much because of previous injuries.

Texas should be able to beat Iowa State without receiving a lot of help from any of those players, but it will be instructive moving forward to see who is healthy, particularly in regards to Chiles and Davis, as the wide receiving corps desperately needs some help right now, as mentioned above.

In addition, if Robinson and Vaccaro are held out, it places more pressure on Jordan Hicks and Adrian Phillips, both of whom filled in admirably last week and will benefit from some increased playing time. The development of Phillips is especially important, as he will almost certainly be asked to step into a starting role next season with the departures of the Brown and most likely Aaron Williams as well.