On Thursday night, the Texas Longhorns will kick off their Big 12 slate on the road against an improving Iowa State Cyclones squad.
To help provide fsome insight on this year’s edition of the Cyclones, Burnt Orange Nation caught up with Levi Stevenson of SB Nation’s Wide Right Natty Lite:
BON: ISU is 2-1 and barely lost to an Iowa team that just took Penn State to the wire. How close is Matt Campbell to turning the corner in Ames?
WRNL: Short answer: *THIS* close.
Long answer: It's hard to tell exactly. This year's squad is probably the most talented group of Cyclone football players ever. There's quality depth at almost every position, something Cyclone fans have never seen, and a sound, but evolving gameplan. Finally, we have a coaching staff that can do everything well. Recruit, develop, maintain, and make adjustments. The last step that needs to be taken is finishing off games late. Last season could have easily been a bowl game season if the team had been able to capitalize on second half leads.
BON: It's still early, but what's been the most welcomed surprise with how ISU has performed to start the season and what's been a bit of a disappointment, if anything?
WRNL: The defensive line, no question. This group was thought to be defense's weakest group, with almost no starting experience returning. Yet, this group has not just been better than expected, but an actual strength of this team. Ray Lima and Vernell Trent have led the way, but JaQuan Bailey, J.D. Waggoner, Kamilo Tongamoa, and Carson Lensing have been outstanding so far this year. The Cyclones rank in the top 30 in total run defense, and have been an immovable force in the middle. On top of a solid run defense, this group has been able to consistently pressure the quarterback with just a 4-man rush, allowing the young linebackers to find blitzing lanes or sit back to patrol crossing routes.
BON: Iowa State's offense has put up at least 40 in every game this year, but Texas' defense shut out SJSU and kept USC scoreless through its first six drives. Which side breaks first on Thursday?
WRNL: Iowa State's top two receivers in Hakeem Butler and Allen Lazard are 6'6" and 6'5" respectively. Deshaunte Jones and Trever Ryen are outstanding slot threats, Marchie Murdock has come out of nowhere to become a legitimate weapon in the passing game, and highly touted JUCO transfer Matt Eaton is starting to get comfortable and be productive in the offense. Jacob Park will be an NFL draft pick in two years, and David Montgomery is the best running back nobody is talking about. Most teams don't have the personnel to cover a 6'5" receiver, let alone two. Even if they somehow have someone to cover both, David Montgomery is Iowa State's Le'Veon Bell, and is equally dangerous in the receiving game. Iowa State has consistently gotten off to fast starts, but struggled in the second quarter. Even if the second quarter struggles to continue, the staff has been excellent in making halftime adjustments. The Texas defense breaks first, turning the game into a shootout.
BON: Texas has plenty of areas that can be exploited — offense line, porous running game, a still growing secondary, etc. Where will Iowa State find its success against these Longhorns?
WRNL: As mentioned earlier, Iowa State is extremely balanced on offense. David Montgomery is a monster, and the Cyclones boast one of the most talented receiving corps in the Big 12. However, the best scheme Iowa State has run all year is Hakeem Butler running a seam route from a standing tight end position. Butler is 6'5" with 4.4 speed, so there likely isn't a defender in the Big 12 capable of matching up with him one-on-one, and Matt Campbell knows it. Even against Iowa's stellar linebacking corps, Hakeem was able to consistently burn the slower linebackers for long plays on the seam route. In an offense filled with big-play potential, #HakeemTheDreamOnTheSeam is the best weapon the Cyclones bring to the table.
BON: On the other hand, what are Iowa State's weaknesses that Texas can take advantage of and start Big 12 play with a win?
WRNL: Though the secondary is talented, most of the talent is still young. Without a doubt, the biggest weakness of the defense, and the team in general, is defending the deep ball. If the Longhorn receivers are able to create separation and Beuchele can put some touch on his deep balls, it could be a long game for the defense.
BON: There's plenty to like about this ISU offense. Allen Lazard is obviously on his way to being one of, if not the best WR in ISU history, but who are the weapons Texas fans may not know just yet?
WRNL: Because I've already mentioned Hakeem Butler about 25 times, and David Montgomery is now in the "worst-kept secret in Big 12 football" category, I'm going to go with Marchie Murdock. The Illinois transfer was quiet last season, but has caught two TDs this year in an offense crowded with good receivers. His athleticism won't blow you away, but his route running is top tier. Think Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks. Smart, technically sound, and productive.
Ames seems like the kind of place you don't want to play on Thursday night … weird stuff happens. Is this just coincidence or is there something in particular about that environment?
WRNL: Weeknight games at Jack Trice Stadium generally feature a good visiting opponent, so the atmosphere is always electric. Ever since the Oklahoma State upset in 2011, weeknight games at Jack Trice seem to always have a different vibe than your standard Saturday afternoon game. Hilton Coliseum is just a few hundred feet from the stadium, so my theory is that some Hilton Magic starts bleeding over at night.
WRNL: Texas certainly has a talented defense, so I have this pegged as a strength vs. strength matchup. I've always believed in the mantra that good offense will always beat good defense, so I think the Longhorn defense will eventually wear down after trying to tackle David Montgomery all game. Texas' deep passing game will probably burn the secondary a couple times, but I think the Cyclone defense eventually bows up and forces a critical turnover.
I'm taking the good guys 34-27 over the 'Horns.