For a second time this season, the Iowa State Cyclones stunned a highly-ranked opponent in Ames last weekend, sending the TCU Horned Frogs to the program’s first loss season. In doing so, the Cyclones illustrated how the Texas Longhorns can pull of a similar feat this weekend.
To be sure, the task facing Texas will be more difficult — the ‘Horns won’t be playing in front of a raucous home crowd and the Horned Frogs will almost certainly be re-focused and intent on making up for last week’s performance.
But the game does still provide a blueprint for how the Longhorns can break through with the first major win of the Tom Herman era.
Rarely do upsets happen without the benefit of the favored team making a number of mistakes and that was unquestionably the case for TCU in Ames — Iowa State won the turnover battle 3-1. Just as importantly, two of those turnovers came in the red zone.
One of the few mistakes by the Cyclones — an interception thrown by quarterback Kyle Kempt — set up the Horned Frogs with a short field early in the second half. Then, a personal foul penalty moved TCU even closer to the Iowa State goal line.
The defense responded, however, playing zone coverage against a man-beating concept targeting the flat and taking advantage of a floated pass by Kenny Hill that was intercepted right at the goal line and returned 70 yards.
In the fourth quarter, the most explosive drive of the game for the Horned Frogs once again move the ball near the goal line until short-yardage running back Sewo Olonilua fumbled on the 3-yard line.
Hill also threw another interception that essentially ended the game late.
Disrupt Kenny Hill
The artist formerly known as Kenny Trill during his less mature days at Texas A&M has been much more consistent this season after throwing 13 interceptions and getting sacked 28 times last season.
Improved protection from the offensive line has helped, but Hill has also helped with better decision making. Against Iowa State, Hill regressed — he wasn’t able to find many openings against a defense that dropped eight in coverage and his accuracy suffered. Ultimately, he only averaged 5.4 yards per attempt on 12-of-25 passing.
Against an offensive line that pass protects well, including ranking No. 6 in passing downs sack rate, Iowa State only produced one sack, but did enough to make Hill uncomfortable.
On his costly interception in the red zone, for instance, Hill drifted left on his pass to that side, which helped cause the inaccurate pass. When Texas played Iowa State, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando brought some early blitzes in an effort to make quarterback Jacob Park worry about the pressure. While Hill may have more poise than Park, a combination of tight coverage or forcing the TCU quarterback to reset his feet in the pocket could once again pay off for Texas.
Do just enough on offense
The fast, well-coached TCU defense is among the best in the country, ranking No. 8 nationally in S&P+ and throttling teams on the ground. Opponents average 2.3 yards per carry against head coach Gary Patterson’s unit and there’s no need to adjust that for opponents — it ranks No. 3 nationally in per carry allowed and No. 2 in rushing S&P+.
Iowa State only averaged 1.3 yards per carry last week, but was able to convert on two drives, so there will be a premium on scoring in the red zone, an area of weakness for Texas this season.
On the first touchdown drive by Iowa State, some pre-snap shifts and individual brilliance from David Montgomery on the ground helped, as did a third-down conversion on a physical hitch run by Allen Lazard. And some luck, too — Kempt’s arm was hit on a pass that he ultimately completed to Lazard for 22 yards.
From 17 yards out, Kempt hit his wide receiver on something on a back-shoulder throw for a touchdown. As the cornerback was playing bail coverage and retreating into the end zone, the wide receiver simply stopped and Kempt put the ball on the money.
A pass-interference penalty extended the second touchdown drive. Catching TCU on a cornerback blitz then paid off when a wide receiver found a hole between the flat defender and the deep defender for 13 yards. Iowa State then missed a big opportunity when Kempt overthrew a wide receiver who had beat the cornerback down the sideline — the type of play that Texas will almost certainly have to convert.
Once again, Montgomery was able to flash some individual brilliance, breaking through tackle attempts by, well, most of the Horned Frogs defense for 15 yards. A play later, Iowa State continued to target TCU cornerback Ranthony Texada and beat him with a perfectly-placed pass to Lazard for 30 yards.
Another perfectly-placed throw on third down to another exceptionally tall wide receiver produced the touchdown.
In other words, it takes some good luck and a lot of individual brilliance to beat this TCU defense, which is a tall task for a Texas team that will struggle to protect the quarterback and create running lanes. Suffice it to say that offensive coordinator Tim Beck will need an inspired game plan and guys like sophomore wide receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey and perhaps freshman running back Daniel Young will have to step up in big ways.
Avoid the most egregious self-inflicted mistakes
With only one turnover and four penalties for 35 yards, Iowa State didn’t consistently put TCU in a position to take advantage of mistakes by the Cyclones. In playing opportunistic defense and receiving a boost from crowd noise in the stadium, the home team helped cause 11 penalties for 104 yards and three turnovers.
Without the benefit of home-field advantage, Texas may have difficulties making TCU as uncomfortable in this game. And there have been too many times this season when the ‘Horns have committed untimely penalties — the team still ranks No. 109 nationally in penalty yards per game.
While pointing out that the margin for error remains slim with the Longhorns is hardly a revelation, it remains true that every mental error by Texas will give TCU a better chance of winning game — that’s not a recipe for an upset. Avoiding holding penalties on offense will be especially key.
Dropping so many players into coverage helped Iowa State reduce big plays in the running game and the passing game. Once Orlando adopted a similar scheme against Oklahoma State, the number of coverage busts decreased and the run defense continued to play remarkably well, so the defense stands a strong chance of accomplishing its goal in this area.
Then there’s the kicking game. Texas probably shouldn’t kick to KaVontae Turpin, who had a 94-yard touchdown return last week, and since the game will likely be low scoring, junior kicker Josh Rowland may have to come through in the clutch, a scary thought indeed.
While the blueprint of an upset might seem relatively easy to follow, the strength of the TCU defense will put tremendous pressure on the Texas offense to execute at a high level and avoid mistakes. Likewise, an increasingly confidence Longhorns defense needs to make plays and keep the Horned Frogs out of the end zone.
In evaluating what wrong in Ames, it’s clear that Iowa State was better suited in some ways to do all of that than Texas will be on the road. Playing with effort and physicality has been enough to keep Tom Herman’s team in games against other highly-ranked opponents, but those qualities alone won’t be enough to win on Saturday.