For the last three seasons, the Iowa State Cyclones have notched wins over the Texas Longhorns under head coach Matt Campbell, including a 30-7 win last year in Ames that featured the Cyclones scoring all 27 points in the second half to send head coach Steve Sarkisian’s first team to its fourth straight loss.
So Sarkisian has styled this season the Revenge Tour after the Longhorns suffered seven losses in 2021. Saturday’s game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium will mark the third straight Revenge Tour contest following wins over West Virginia and Oklahoma, although Sarkisian admitted it’s not a tactic he’s used in the past.
“I’ve never really done it before,” Sarkisian said on Thursday. “Every year you’re always trying to find the right buttons to push — emotionally, psychologically — for your team. I felt like last season we let a lot of games slip away and when you when you go through it that way, you can hear a lot of the negativity that comes with that.”
Why can’t they finish? What happens in the second half? Questions about conditioning and a lack of strength. Questions about coaches making the right adjustments.
“You have to find a way to kind of flip the script and get it to where, well, what are we doing about it, and how are we going to go about it, and then what’s our mission and inevitably there’s a lot of these games that we’re going back into to play the same teams,” Sarkisian said. “And there’s got to be a little bit of sense of revenge and not so much revenge on the opponent, revenge our own actions of how we performed in those moments in those games, to ultimately go finish those ballgames.”
With Campbell having to replace half of his starters from last year’s disappointing 7-6 team, the Cyclones have struggled on offense this season, limping into Austin with three straight losses — a 31-24 defeat by Baylor, a 14-11 loss to Kansas, and a 10-9 loss to Kansas State.
But as much as the offense has struggled with injuries, departures, and execution issues, the defense is playing at a high level and keeping Iowa State in games against ranked opponents.
Quarterback Brock Purdy isn’t walking out of the visitor’s locker room on Saturday. Neither is running back Breece Hall. Nor tight end Charlie Kolar.
Replacing three of the best offensive players in Iowa State history hasn’t been an easy task for Campbell and increasingly embattled offensive coordinator Tom Manning, whose attack ranks No. 70 nationally in SP+, No. 99 in yards per play at 5.2, and No. 103 nationally in scoring offense at 23.2 points per game.
The Cyclones are missing the improvisational ability of Purdy to make off-schedule plays, the explosiveness of Hall, and the red-zone ability of Kolar, who had 23 receiving touchdowns in his college career. The Cyclones are converting only 52.17 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns, No. 107 nationally.
In place of Purdy, quarterback Hunter Dekkers is eighth in the Big 12 in passer rating, has the second-most interceptions in the conference with six, and has been sacked 14 times, third most in the conference.
At running back, former four-star recruit Jirehl Brock was set back by an ankle injury suffered against Kansas, limiting him to one carry, and struggled to find room against the strong Kansas State defense in his return, rushing 13 times for 33 yards with a long run of six yards. Backup running back Cartevious Norton has missed four of the last five games.
With Kolar gone, as well as blocking tight end Chase Allen, the Cyclones lost two key pieces of the offense, leaving wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson to carry the load in the passing game with 57 catches for 604 yards and five touchdowns. Only two other wide receivers have a receiving touchdown, so defenses have been able to focus on limiting the 6’3, 205-pound Hutchinson.
This week, Campbell blamed inconsistencies for some of the offensive issues — receivers missed when they’re open, inaccurate passes, breakdowns in pass protection, key missed blocks in the running game.
“You’ve seen plenty of times this season where that group has played a really high rate and you’re looking for that consistency,” Campbell said. “And again, when you have young players or people doing their role for the first time, sometimes you’re gonna get inconsistency and I think that’s what you’re seeing over the course of the last couple of weeks, and we have to be better — we can’t shy away from it.”
Five years ago on a Thursday night in Ames, Campbell debuted one of the most important decisions in his head coaching career — after playing a four-down, quarters defense for a year and a half at Iowa State, the defense was underperforming, prompting a switch to a three-down, drop-eight strategy meant to maximize their strengths in the secondary.
It wasn’t enough for the Cyclones to pull off the win against the Longhorns in a 17-7 defeat, but that gameplan grew into a 3-3 stack with three high safeties that became a key part of the defense’s identity under Jon Heacock. Coordinators like Brent Venables at Clemson traveled to Ames in 2020 to learn the odd stack and it has served Iowa State well against Texas, too, helping produce those three straight wins as the Horns struggled to unlock the Flyover defense.
Iowa State enters the game No. 17 in defensive SP+ while ranking No. 1 in the Big 12 in total defense (277.5 yards per game), scoring defense (13.7 points per game), total run defense (91.0 yards per game), and total pass defense (186.5 yards per game). Kansas State was able to produce two big passing plays, but the Cyclones other negate explosive plays with only one run of more than 30 yards allowed this season. On third down, opponents are converting only 29.3 percent, No. 15 nationally.
Off the edge, Will McDonald leads the way following a two-sack game, middle linebacker O’Rien Vance leads the team with 31 tackles, and Anthony Johnson has helped make up for the losses of Isheem Young and Greg Eisworth on the back end.
The hope for Texas is that seeing a form of that defense last week against Oklahoma will help Sarkisian develop a better gameplan against Iowa State this year.
“I think schematically, it’s always helpful,” Sarkisian said Monday. “We try to expose our guys to as much as we can throughout training camp. It’s hard to replicate certain schemes in practice from a scout team perspective, so when you can get real, live reps at some of those things, it’s always helpful. Iowa State is really the pioneer of this defense, the 3-3 defense. They do a great job. They’re not as simple as people would say. From the outside, you just think, ‘Oh, it’s a 3-3 defense.’ These guys do a lot of really cool things and they do it from week to week against different opponents, so you’ve got to be prepared for the multiplicity that they can give you out of the original structure. I do think it was beneficial for the baseline structure, but the way they go about doing it is a little bit different.”
Last season’s game featured some growing pains for Sarkisian against a defense that limited Texas to three points and 207 total yards on 3.32 yards per play — the Longhorns head coach came away feeling like he didn’t put his players in a position to have success.
“I didn’t think I did a great job of that a year ago,” Sarkisian said. “I thought we had some opportunities to maybe seize some more momentum in that game in the first half, especially when our defense was playing well. We ended up going into the locker room ahead, 7-3, but we just didn’t perform great. That falls on me, ultimately, as the head coach and the play caller, so we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
The other big loss for the Cyclones came with the graduation of longtime place kicker Conner Assalley, who hit 73.8 percent of his field goals at Iowa State, including a game-winning 36-yard field goal against Texas in 2019. Replacement Jace Gilbert struggled with three misses in the close loss to Kansas, but has otherwise hit his other nine attempts, including two from more than 40 yards.
Overall, the Iowa State special teams rank No. 130 nationally in SP+, perhaps a result of Campbell’s strange unwillingness to dedicate an assistant to that role — the Cyclones didn’t even have an analyst addressing that area of the game until this season.
On punt and kickoff returns this season, Iowa State hasn’t been successful and allowed over 25 yards per kickoff return to Ohio, although the punting has been solid with Tyler Perkins averaging 44.6 yards per attempt.
The ability of the Iowa State defense to limit explosive plays and make it difficult to score gives the Cyclones a chance to make Saturday’s game a close, low-scoring contest to overcome the 89-percent win probability afforded to the Longhorns by ESPN. But if Texas can hold the Iowa State offense to 14 points or fewer and Sarkisian can finally find a way to unlock that Cyclones defense, the Longhorns have a chance to pull of a comfortable win and cover the 15.5-point spread from DraftKings.*
“From a team perspective, I think our players have a little better understanding of what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do what we’re doing,” Sarkisian said. “Ultimately, I think it’s lending itself to a little better execution, but those two things tied together, hopefully we perform better than we did a year ago. We need to — these guys are a very good defensive football team.”
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.