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Inside the numbers: Texas turns in an elite response to being challenged

The Longhorns’ toughness was questioned and answered on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State Aaron E. Martinez-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 7 Texas Longhorns still haven’t quite clinched a spot in the Big 12 Championship, but leaving Ames with a 10-point win over the Iowa State Cyclones and lone control of the top spot in the conference didn’t hurt their chances.

The Texas defense, who has been lights out on the ground through the last five games, once again stifled a team that likes to be balanced, forcing them to play against tendency. That advantage turned out to be just what the Longhorns needed to come away with a win in the game, keying on the freshman quarterback of the Cyclones and putting the advantage squarely in their favor.

Texas defense: 332 total yards (323 passing, 9 rushing)

The Longhorns defense continues to be elite in their games on the ground, turning in levels of performance not seen since Texas was last competing for a national championship.

It makes it even sweeter that the toughness of the Texas defense was questioned by an Iowa State player ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

Saturday’s nine-yard outing against the Cyclones is the best performance since the 2018 non-conference matchup against the USC Trojans, in which the Longhorns forced them into the negatives. On the other sideline, it was a low-water mark for Iowa State under Matt Campbell, on both a total yardage and a yards-per-carry basis. You have to go back to 2010, the second year under Paul Rhoads, o find a worse performance by the Cyclones.

Some more perspective:

Perhaps the most impressive part about the performance is that the Longhorns didn’t rely on a huge amount of sack yardage to get the job done, with a sack-adjusted total of 28 yards. Overall, Texas has been on a heater against the ground game for the last five contests, tightening down as a response to the Oklahoma debacle. The 236 total rushing yards is the best five-game run by the Texas run defense since the 2009 season when they rattled off six straight sub-100 games to kick off the season. In that run, Texas is averaging eight sacks per game for more than 30 yards lost.

The Longhorns came away with six tackles for loss on the day as well, continuing the heater they’ve been on for the last five games. In the last five contests, the Longhorns are averaging eight tackles for loss, totaling more than 30 yards per game lost by opponents.

Third downs: 3/11 (27 percent)

Pete Kwiatkowski’s group has also been elite on the money down, once again taking advantage of its ability to pin its ears back and tee off on an Iowa State offense that played behind the chains.

The Cyclones faced an average to-go distance of 5.4 yards, gaining an average of just 2.5 yards on third downs. ISU couldn’t get anything going on the ground all night and opted to simply abandon the run on the money down, rushing one time for one yard gained. In fact, the Longhorns have been elite on that front in recent history, giving up just three first downs on the ground over the last five weeks with zero allowed in the last two contests.

The Cyclones weren’t much more successful through the air, however, dropping back seven times on the money down, completing five of them for just 27 yards. Texas also managed to bring down the quarterback twice on third downs, harassing Rocco Becht early and often.

CJ Baxter: 20 carries, 117 yards (5.9 ypc)

The loss of starting running back Jonathon Brooks seemed to be a huge blow to the Longhorns, leaving fans and media wondering what the offense would be able to do without its workhorse.

Former five-star recruit CJ Baxter answered the call in a big way for Texas, turning in his first-career 100-yard performance and keeping the offense on pace all day. There is room to grow for the big-bodied back, especially late in the game — Baxter was stuffed on four carries on the contest, a relatively high number, and three of those four carries came on the final drive of the game, two of which after he cracked off a 14-yard run to set up Texas with a 2nd and 1 with the ability to kill the clock following a conversion.

That being said, Baxter managed to look every bit of a former five-star prospect in multiple facets of the game.

First, and perhaps most importantly, in spite of the high stuff number, Baxter went the entire game without being brought down behind the line of scrimmage even though he took some hits that provided the opportunity for tackles for loss. On the flip side, Baxter looked explosive after battling a foot injury for most of the season and proved able to gash an Iowa State defense that excels on shutting down the ground game, with five of his 20 carries going for more than 10 yards.

For Texas, the mission is clear going into the final week of the regular season — win and you’re in Arlington. The Big 12, with its new 14-team format, has struggled already with the messiness of its tiebreakers, issuing a clarification prior to the weekend about who currently holds the inside track for second place.

The Red Raiders now come to town with another potent running attack, hoping to reverse the trend of ground success from Texas.