The No. 7 Texas Longhorns escaped another nailbiter and appeared to be regressing to its 2022 form. The Kansas State Wildcats were expected to be the most difficult opponent post Red River Rivalry, but the trip to Fort Worth proved the TCU Horned Frogs were out for blood as well. We can anticipate that the remaining games against the Iowa State Cyclones and the Texas Tech Red Raiders will be no different. This weekend Texas travels to Ames for a rugged defensive matchup.
The Longhorns took a huge hit with running back Jonathan Brooks being out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. Just as quarterback Quinn Ewers returned from his sprained shoulder along with some recovering offensive linemen, it was tragic to watch another Texas player leave the field. CJ Baxter will step up as the lead back, and he was projected to do so from the start of the season. An interesting investigation I sought after this week was first-down conversions. Theoretically, we envision dominant offenses to accumulate the most, but frequent scoring could mean teams just travel down the field faster and don’t need as many. Regardless, I was curious to assess the splits in conversions dependent on the current down. Below is a chart showcasing the total amount of passing first downs for each team in the Big 12, along with the remaining top 15 AP teams for comparison. The percentages inside each bar indicate their conversion rate on that particular down. The teams are sorted by their total number of first downs descending and then secondly by their overall conversion percentage.
Unsurprisingly, Washington leads in total first downs and apart from their rough game against Arizona, they continue to push the envelope behind Michael Penix Jr. and a talented receiving corps. They convert 52 percent of their first downs into new first downs which is just staggering when compared to any other ranked team. However, as noted before, total first downs is not the end all be all. Alabama has risen again behind Jalen Milroe after their loss to Texas, and they have done so while tallying first downs at a rate closer to teams at the bottom of the Big 12 standings. But the standout number here is their third-down conversion rate of 55 percent, which ranks third in this chart behind Washington and Michigan. High-caliber offenses don’t just perform when it’s easy, Bama also continues to show they can perform under pressure.
For Texas, that third-down conversion rate has become increasingly alarming. While they excel on first and second down, we are slowly losing hope that the Longhorns can continue drives beyond that. Third and short situations will now be on the back of CJ Baxter, and even before the injury, Ewers struggled to connect with open receivers on third down.
The same chart for rushing first downs is shown below.
Another reason we shouldn’t completely rely on the metric is simply because the Mountaineers top this chart and I am as surprised as you are. Like I double checked the numbers and everything, but yeah, West Virginia leads in rushing first downs. This is heavily influenced by the fact that they are just an extremely run-heavy offense, and once you look at their conversion numbers, it makes a bit more sense as they are not really efficient.
As far as real threats go in the run game, Bucky Irving along with Oregon’s offensive line is leading the pack by a mile (as noted a couple of a weeks ago), boasting a total rushing conversion rate of 33 percent. There has been a lot of attention on Heisman candidate Bo Nix, but their rushing offense has been extremely efficient and definitely deserves their roses as well. Georgia stands out as an elite third-down team in rushing with a 58-percent conversion rate.
It is indeed fascinating that Texas has the second-lowest conversion rate when running on first down. This could be partially due to opponents anticipating the script, knowing that Steve Sarkisian wants to establish the run early in each drive to open up the playbook.
Iowa State boasts the third-ranked run defense in the conference, allowing just 124.7 yards per game. Defensive end Tyler Onyedim (33 tackles, 1 sack) is the third-best defensive lineman in the conference in run defense and nose tackle Domonique Orange (13, 0) ranks 20th. Orange along with defensive tackle JR Singleton (15, 3.5) are decently rated in the pass rush as well. Their starting linebacker corps is relatively below average but Caleb Beacon (37, 3) is graded as the best run stopper and second-best pass rusher at the linebacker position off his 230 snaps so far in the season.
Strong linebacker Carsin Willich, free safety Jeremiah Cooper (6 pass breakups, 5 interceptions) and cornerback TJ Tampa (7, 2) take the 1,2, and 3 spots in coverage rating in the conference. Safeties Malik Verdon (2, 2) and Beau Freyler (4, 3) are also top-20 defensive back candidates in the Big 12. As a whole, this secondary has been on another level all season, ranking first in yards allowed per game at 204.3 and in completion rate allowed at 53.8 percent. While Ewers may gain a little more time in the pocket, these ball hawks will surely be a challenge for him to play through and he will have to make sure he can get to the checkdown pass before the pocket collapses.
There have now been three games in which Texas has blown a big first-half lead. Before the Oklahoma game, I was applauding how the culture had been turned around. This trend we had seen throughout the 2022 season seemed to be ending and the Longhorns were having amazing fourth-quarter surges on offense and shutouts on defense in the back half of games. Rather than measuring simply by points, I looked at every game through the success rate allowed for each quarter. As a reminder, a successful down is defined by any of the following:
- a score
- first down that gains 50 percent of yards needed
- second down that gains 70 percent of yards needed
- a successful third- or fourth-down conversion
There is a strange anomaly towards the end of the Rice game, but we will overlook that for now. You will notice that the worrisome games all have the common fourth-quarter boost by opposing offenses. TCU, Oklahoma, and Kansas State are the next three highest fourth-quarter marks. We can blame this ongoing issue due to injuries, but the Texas defense is typically strong in the start (with exceptions of Houston and Oklahoma peaks in the second quarter), often looking like one of the nation’s best.
The Cyclones offense is led by Rocco Becht, who ranks 10th in passing grade in the conference. He has tallied a solid 2,121 yards so far this season and thrown for 15 touchdowns, but has also thrown seven interceptions and taken eight sacks. Iowa State’s passing game is limited in depth. Becht ranks 11th in the conference in big-time throw rate, last in average depth of target, and first in time to throw. The ball is often out quick and over the middle in the 0-10 yard range. He has completed 62-of-85 passes in this region, along with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Very rarely does he takes shots down field, completing just 12-of-30 attempts in the 20-plus yard range. Below are the efficiency and box score statistics for his surrounding teammates.
X receiver Jayden Higgins is the highest-graded offensive weapon for the Cyclones, ranking sixth in the conference. He is the dominant outside threat and averages 17.4 yards per reception. However, Bocht sometimes forces these passes as he has thrown four of his interceptions when targeting Higgins. Jaylin Noel lines up in the slot and is the most targeted in that short range, averaging 10.3 yards per reception. Tight end Benjamin Brahmer is the highest-graded receiver at his position in the Big 12, also frequently being utilized in the slot. He rarely is used in in the pass protection as those duties are often forwarded onto Easton Dean.
Cartevious Norton ranks 13th out of all running backs in the conference, averaging just 4.1 yards per carry; meanwhile Eli Sanders ranks 18th. The Cyclones run game isn’t their greatest strength and it stems from an offensive line that fails to generate anything higher than 2.5 yards at the line. Norton continues to be the bell cow given his size and ability to get yards after contact and the occasional breakaway run. Becht’s runs are generally off of scrambles, but he has taken 75 sack yards and fumbled the ball twice.
Texas will have an extremely tough time working against this Cyclones defense and we can just be thankful that Ewers is back under center and the wide receiver corps is still healthy. But if Iowa State finds a way to make Ewers uncomfortable early on, the team will have to lean on the freshman Baxter to create some momentum in the ground game. Theoretically, as we say before every game, the Longhorns shouldn’t have a problem putting a hard stop on the Cyclones offense. Their run game doesn’t really have any presence and the pressure provided should be enough to generate turnovers. The tandem of the both sides making big plays in the second half will be the X factor in this weekend’s game. According to DraftKings, the current spread is -7.5.