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What to Watch For: Previewing the Iowa State Cyclones

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Four points is all that separates the Cyclones from three big wins this season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Iowa State at Texas Tech Photo by Travis Tustin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After notching a much-needed win Saturday in Austin against the Kansas State Wildcats, the Texas Longhorns find themselves back in the rankings as they prepare to leave cold weather for colder weather and travel to Ames to take on the Iowa State Cyclones.

The Cyclones, who are 5-4 overall and 3-3 in Big 12 play, are coming off a one-point loss to the Sooners in a game where they were a two-point conversion away from taking the lead with just 24 seconds remaining.

In all, the final score was a bit closer than what transpired the first three quarters. Up until the final minute of the third quarter, when Iowa State cut the lead to a touchdown at 42-35, Oklahoma had paced the Cyclones by multiple scores for most of the game after starting off with a 14-0 lead and ending the half up 35-14.

What the final score (and quarter) does say, though, is that once again head coach Matt Campbell has himself a feisty and competitive Cyclones team that can give any opponent a good run at any time.

In fact, all four of the Cyclones defeats this season have been in the single digits as the other three losses include a one-point loss to a ranked Iowa team, a two-point loss to an undefeated Baylor team, and a seven-point loss to a respectable 6-3 Oklahoma State team.

And even though the Longhorns enter this game with the better record overall and in the Big 12, the Cyclones play to this point has been strong enough for them to be favored by about seven points in Vegas and listed as a sizable favorite in ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Though this game has the makings of one that could be decided by a late score, the Longhorns will need to be ready to play defense against a Cyclones team that can put points on the board in a number of ways.

What can the Texas defense expect from the Iowa State offense?

Leading the way for the Cyclones since 2016, Campbell has done a nice job of ensuring he and his staff make the most of what resources and talent they can find and attract to Ames each season.

Recent standouts include running back David Montgomery and wide receivers Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler, all of whom are now on NFL rosters.

As this season has progressed, Campbell and company have again found more skill players to rally around, and that’s helped this Iowa State offense maintain its rank as one of the stronger units in the Big 12 to this point.

The other factor that’s aided the Cyclones offense this season has been the return of offensive coordinator Tom Manning.

Manning, who previously held the Iowa State offensive coordinator job on Campbell’s staff from 2016 to 2017, spent the 2018 season helping coach Eric Ebron to a Pro Bowl selection as Manning coached tight ends for the Indianapolis Colts.

So far, Manning’s brief experience with the Colts has boded well for the Cyclones in a season Iowa State has had the tall task of replacing the massive production left by Butler and Montgomery.

Replacing Butler’s 60 receptions, 1,318 yards, and nine touchdowns was never going to be accomplished by one player on this Cyclones roster. But almost naturally, Manning has been able to utilize a big tight end to generate a chunk of that production through the air.

Through nine games, a big factor in the Iowa State offense has been redshirt sophomore tight end Charlie Kolar. Listed at 6’6 and 252 pounds, Kolar has hauled in 36 receptions for 515 yards and six touchdowns.

Kolar is a talented receiving threat at tight end and has the size to body up any defender a defense throws his way. But Kolar’s value also comes in the form of versatility as he can be an effective blocker and can help disguise Iowa State’s attack by lining up in various spots around the offense.

Outside of Kolar, other receiving threats include senior wide receivers DeShaunte Jones and La’Michael Pettway.

At 5’10 and 180 pounds, Jones leads the team in receptions and receiving yards with 56 receptions for 604 yards and a score. And Pettway sits just behind Kolar in receptions with 34 while rounding out his production with 404 receiving yards and four scores.

Though Jones isn’t quite the big-play threat the Longhorns defense has seen in receivers like CeeDee Lamb and Tylan Wallace, he is still a capable weapon on the outside that the Cyclones can target.

Spreading the ball around to the playmakers is sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy. After throwing for over 2,250 yards and 16 touchdowns in his freshman campaign, the second-year passer finds himself leading all Big 12 quarterbacks in passing yards with 2,849 and just second to Sam Ehlinger’s and Jalen Hurts’ tie of 24 passing touchdowns with 20 himself.

Purdy has also added 251 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

With big shoes to fill at running back, it looks like the Cyclones have already managed to find a potential long-term answer in freshman Breece Hall.

Just in his first season as a collegiate running back, the 6’1, 205-pound Hall has rushed 99 times for 585 yards and seven scores. He’s also been a factor catching passes out of the backfield with 14 receptions for 153 yards.

In all, the Cyclones offense is more of a physical style of spread offense that leans on its tight ends and some extra blockers out of 11 personnel and 12 personnel sets to work its way down the field against defenses. Considering how low the temperature will be throughout the game, that style of play should hold up fairly well on Saturday when the Longhorns’ defense takes the field in Iowa.

What could Sam Ehlinger and the Longhorns offense see from the Cyclones defense?

With the innovation of offenses in the Big 12 Conference has come the innovation of defenses, and Iowa State has been at the forefront of that innovation for a few years now.

Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has been a recent pioneer in basing out of a dime defense, and his “3-3-3” defensive schemes that line up similar to a 3-3-5 have been ones other coordinators around the conference and country have begun to borrow from including Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

To combat the mismatches and infusion of speed and space a spread offense can deploy, Heacock has essentially focused on matching that with schemes and a base defense that can boast its own versatility and speed to reduce the space and minimize the mismatches and weak links a spread offense could hunt for and pick on throughout games.

So far, the 2019 Cyclones defense has taken a few lumps, but overall it’s been one of the better units in the Big 12. Currently, it ranks third in both yards allowed and points allowed to Big 12 opponents, as well as No. 18 nationally in SP+.

Defending the pass hasn’t gone as well as defending the run, but considering the defense has held every team on its schedule not from Oklahoma to below 30 points, Heacock’s defensive unit is another reason why this Cyclones team is still a competitive one even with four losses on the season.

Defensive leaders include 6’1, 218-pound “linebacker’ Marcel Spears Jr., who is more of a hybrid safety/LB in this fairly hybrid defense and leads the team in tackles, linebacker Mike Rose, a 6’3, 240-pound sophomore who leads the team in tackles for loss with 8.5, O’Rien Vance, a 6’1, 231-pound linebacker who leads the team in sacks with 6.5, and “Star” safety Greg Eisworth, who is often right in the middle of the action and leads the team with seven pass breakups.

It’s a stingy defense that swarms to the football and can get after the quarterback thanks to some sneaky speed from its linebackers and second level.

Given the nature of these two physical football teams, this game has the makings of one that could come down to a late-game score in the final quarter of a low-scoring, 10-round fight.

For Texas the leave Ames with a win on Saturday, Tom Herman and his staff will need to have his Longhorns ready to play an intense and sound football game against a team that rarely backs down against its competition.