Steve Sarkisian and the No. 7 Texas Longhorns travel to Ames Iowa for the 10th time in program history to take on a surging Iowa State Cyclones team at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday at 7 p.m. Central with hopes of keeping their Big 12 championship and potential College Football Playoff bids alive.
With only two games left in the regular season, Texas continues their streak of close wins to remain in the lead for a Big 12 title and in contention for the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Iowa State sits in a four-way tie with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State in the race for second place in the Big 12.
“This is another Big 12 championship game for us,” Sarkisian said Monday. “We put ourselves in this position over a month ago and we’ve accepted the challenge.”
With the best offensive line and defense in the Big 12, head coach Matt Campbell and this Cyclones team have flown under the radar as a real threat to Texas in the Big 12 at the end of the season.
Two out-of-conference losses to Iowa and Ohio to start the season made us all forget about Iowa State, but since then the Cyclones have won five of their last seven games and now sit in a favorable position against a 9–1 Texas team at home which has developed a bad habit of letting opponents crawl back into games.
Some strengths of this Cyclone team are their stable of three efficient running backs, the best offensive line in the Big 12 that has allowed the seventh fewest sacks in the nation, a defense that leads the Big 12 in total defense, and a rookie quarterback who has surprising poise and accuracy for his age as a young signal caller.
Campbell has posted five consecutive seasons with a winning record for the Cyclones and has his eyes set at ruining the Longhorns farewell party. Sarkisian and Texas must not get complacent against this squad. If they stay aggressive and don’t play it safe in the second half, Texas may leave Ames with their second 10-win season since Mack Brown. But it won’t be an easy task — the Longhorns have lost four of their last five games in Ames.
Nate Scheelhaase enters his first year as the offensive coordinator of the Cyclones after six years under Campell as the team’s wide receivers coach.
The Cyclones run multiple different offensive schemes, but primarily like to run 12 personnel behind their strong offensive line and talented tight ends.
They are sub-50 in both scoring and total offense, but currently rank 13th in red-zone offense, scoring 18 touchdowns in the red area this season, all led by the surprise talent of their freshman quarterback Rocco Becht.
The three-star redshirt freshman from Florida has been a surprise for the Cyclones with his impressive control of this offense. Becht has an accurate arm and can fit throws into tight windows, an ability that can often get him into some rookie mistakes as he has too much confidence in his ability to thread the needle.
Primarily working in the short and intermediate game with slants and out routes, Scheelhaase and the Cyclones are not asking the young quarterback to do too much — 78.8 percent of their throws are within nine yards or behind the line of scrimmage. However, behind a strong offensive line, Becht is able to effectively run this offense and stable of talented skill positions.
Becht has thrown for 2,121 passing yards and 15 touchdowns this season with an average QBR of 62.1 that ranks 62nd in the nation as the young quarterback continues to find his rhythm. Interceptions have been an issue for Becht as he’s thrown seven total this year.
Despite these negatives, Becht has a certain swagger and confidence to him. He’s a great signal caller for a freshman, with an ability to stay poised and make changes at the line effectively. He also poses a threat with his legs with 81 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on the season, primarily serving as a red-zone rushing weapon.
Becht and the Cyclones currently rank 76th passing offense and 59th in passing efficiency in the country, as the young quarterback runs offensive schemes highlighted by their running game.
The Cyclones have a healthy stable of three running backs that share an equal amount of touches in this run-heavy offensive scheme.
The lead back for Iowa State is sophomore Eli Sanders. With 96 carries, he leads the team in carries and rushing yards with 467 on the year for four touchdowns. Standing 6’0, 200 pounds, he often acts as the Cyclone’s goal-line back, picking up tough yards between the tackles. Sanders has yet to fumble once this year.
With only four receptions for 29 yards on the season, Sanders does little to no work as a pass catcher out of the backfield, leaving those duties to Carteveous Norton and Abu Sama.
Also a sophomore, Norton follows Sanders on the depth chart with 84 carries for 341 yards and three touchdowns. The sophomore running back is heavier than Sanders at 5’11, 225 pounds.
Sanders and Norton handled the bulk of the Cyclone’s rushing attack for the majority of the season until last week against BYU when the true freshman Sama had a monster game on the road against the Cougars, rushing for 101 yards for two touchdowns as he cemented himself a role in this offense. Abu has totaled 323 yards on 49 carries for three touchdowns on the year.
It seems Campbell and the Cyclones kind of run with the hot hand with these backs, as they share equitable roles over the course of the season.
These backs have been the staple of this Cyclones offense this season with their efficiency mostly a result of the holes created by their impressive offensive line.
Jaylin Noel is the leading receiver on this offense with 35 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He’s been the favorite target of young quarterback Becht with 71 targets on the season. Noel does most of his work in the short and intermediate game on quick outs and screen plays.
With his 5’10, 200-pound frame, Noel plays a big role in the run game as a blocker out of the slot position, where he takes 64 percent of his snaps. Noel does lead the team in drops with four on the season.
The deep threat is junior wide receiver Jayden Higgins. Standing at 6’4, the 210-pound junior has brought in 35 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns on an average of 17.4 yards per reception. Higgins lines up wide 70.2 percent of the time and with his long frame is able to create space and high point balls over defensive backs.
The Cyclones also utilize their tight ends in the passing game, mainly freshman tight end Benjamin Brahmer, who has so far totaled 21 receptions for 271 yards and two touchdowns. He lines up as a receiver on 94.9 percent of his snaps and is rarely used as a blocker in the 12 and sometimes 13 personnel grouping used by the Cyclones.
The heart and soul of this offense lies behind the success of their offensive line, who up until this point in the season has been one of the best in the nation, led by outspoken senior left guard Jarrod Hufford.
In light of their upcoming matchup against Texas, Hufford commented on the Longhorns saying “they get all the five-star recruits and have all the nicest stuff in the world and they just think their (blank) don’t stink,” Hufford said. “They’re just humans and that’s how I see them. They’re people that have such a high ego that need to be checked.”
Hufford is the only senior on this offensive line, offering veteran leadership to a young group that has allowed only seven sacks on the season. Standing at 6’5, 325 pounds, Hufford hasn’t allowed a sack all season and has the highest grade on the team in pass blocking, according to PFF.
This offensive line is strong on the inside, but has lost some integral pieces, forcing Iowa State to lean on some unreliable underclassmen, making them weak at tackle and center.
With starting center Evan Ladwig only playing one game this season, sophomore Jim Bonifas has stepped into the starting role. This is where the weak spot on this dominant offensive line stands — on the season, Bonifas has allowed one sack, nine hurries, and 15 pressures. He struggles against finesse moves, as he lacks lateral quickness and agility. If defense coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and head coach Steve Sarkisian want to get junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy and senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat to the quarterback, Bonifas is how they will do it.
Another hole can be found in junior right tackle Tyler Miller. He has yet to allow a sack, but has totaled 14 hurries and 17 pressures so far. PFF gave him a poor ranking of 56 in run blocking and 37.9 in pass blocking.
On the other end is sophomore tackle James Neal, who hasn’t impressed either. On the season so far, Neal has allowed one sack, 11 hurries, and 14 pressures with a grade of 57 in pass blocking and 38.2 in run blocking.
This unit has been great over the bulk of the season and does well playing together as a unit. However, their lack of depth is starting to show in allowing three sacks and 20 pressures over the last three games against BYU, Kansas, and Baylor, which all have weak pass rushes. Let’s see how they handle one of the best defensive lines in football this Saturday.
Jon Heacock enters his eighth season as the defensive coordinator for the Cyclones and has been able to establish one of the consistently best defenses in the nation throughout his tenure. Heacock runs a 3-3 stack defense with three high safeties to highlight his impressive defensive secondary on a defense that creates turnovers, but has limited pass-rushing ability.
The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in total defense, yielding 329.0 yards per game, while ranking fourth in scoring defense at 19.9 points per game. They are great outside of the 20’s on both offense and defense, tied with Florida State for 21st in defensive red-zone efficiency.
The defense is highlighted by their impressive secondary, ranking third in the nation in takeaways with 15 interceptions. However, they struggle at getting home to the quarterback, tied with Baylor for 104th in the nation in sacks with only 17 on the season.
Sophomore defensive end Tyler Onyedim (6’4, 295 pounds) lines up in both the nose and edge position. He struggles getting home in pass rushing with only one sack on the year, but is the second-best run defender on the team with a grade of 83.5.
Onyedim is flanked by junior defensive lineman J.R Singleton, who leads the team in sacks with 3.5, most of them coverage sacks. Singleton struggles against dominant offensive fronts and has trouble plugging holes in the run game.
Sophomore linebacker Caleb Bacon was given the highest defensive grade on the team with a score of 85.7. With 21 tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble on the year, he hasn’t posted the best numbers on the year, but he is the major piece in their run blocking scheme with a grade of 91.
Bacon does most of his work in blitz schemes, as he is not best in coverage, allowing seven receptions on nine targets. Also, despite his speed and ability to get to the backfield, he struggles in finishing off players and tackling in the open field.
Bacon is flanked by sophomore linebacker Zach Lovett, who has been a fine complement to Bacon, but also struggles in tackling in the open field. While he has been able to get to the quarterback three times this year, he has only recorded 11 tackles on the season.
The secondary is the strongest aspect of this defense with their ability to blanket the field and create turnovers through the air.
Senior defensive back TJ Tampa the leader of this unit. With 28 tackles, two interceptions, and seven pass deflections, Tampa can defend any player on the field effectively. With a ranking of 88.1 in coverage, he is the third-leading defender on the team in that category. Tampa has only allowed 18 receptions from 39 targets on the year, for an average completion percentage of 46.2 percent.
Sophomore safety Jeremiah Cooper has been everywhere for this Cyclones defense, currently leading the Big 12 and ranking second in the nation with five interceptions despite missing the last two games, while ranking third with 11 passes defended. He has an 89 ranking in coverage, as he is a ball hawk jumping routes on the back end on this defense.
The most impressive member of this backend may be junior safety Beau Fryler. The versatile defensive back is effective in coverage and is a wrecking ball in the open field. Fryer currently leads the team in total tackles with 73. He is great in the open field with the highest PFF tackling score on the team at 90.1 and seems to line up in a different position every play. With one sack, three interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns on the year, this kid can do it all.
Wide receiver Jaylen Noel handles the kickoff and punt return duties for the Cyclones and has yet to make any major splashes with 14 punt returns for 119 yards and a long of 39 yards. On kickoffs, however, Noel was able to break off a 73-yard return.
Kicker Chase Contreraz has the third-best field-goal percentage in the Big 12, connecting on 81.8 percent (18-of-22) and ranks fourth in the conference in scoring, averaging 8.1 points per game.
The major key to success in this game will be to test the depth of this Iowa State offensive line. With these young replacements struggling at times, I think this week should be a good one to put a spotlight on those newfound holes.
With the eighth-best rush defense in the nation and the 28th most sacks in the nation, the goal for Texas should be attack the replacement offensive linemen and limit the Iowa State running game, forcing their young quarterback to beat them through the air. Becht and this passing attack rarely throw the ball downfield, so the goal for the Longhorns defense should be to press these receivers and limit their ability to convert on short passes.
On offense, the Longhorns will have their hands full avoiding interceptions. With the loss of Jonathon Brooks for the season, Sarkisian will have to get the ball into the hands of his talented wide receivers. Ewers has been great all year in protecting the ball with only four interceptions on the season. However, as he is still likely recovering from the AC joint sprain in his shoulder, look for the Longhorns to get AD Mitchell and Xavier Worthy involved in more creative ways behind the line of scrimmage and in the short game.
The Longhorns are favored by 7.5 points, according to DraftKings.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.