On Saturday evening, 26 seniors will suit up and step foot on the field at Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium for the final time, and for the first time in recent memory, the Texas Longhorns senior class will make its final appearance in front of 100,000 members of the burnt orange nation with much at stake.
For the Longhorns and the Iowa State Cyclones, a Big 12 title bid is still well within reach. A domino must ultimately fall elsewhere for such aspirations to come to fruition, but first things first — one must win on Saturday.
“We’re playing one of the best teams in the country, another top-25 team in Iowa State, one that’s won five straight,” Tom Herman told the media on Monday. “I believe they’re tied with us for the second place in the conference. There is a lot at stake in terms of conference rankings. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Matt Campbell and what he’s been able to do in a few years there in terms of the development of the talent that he has and also bringing in quality talent as well.”
Attempting to discern which team owns the edge entering this must-win matchup is a considerably difficult chore. Texas sits as a three-point favorite at home, which would essentially be a push on a neutral field, while S&P+ gives the No. 15-ranked Longhorns an ever-so-slight edge over the No. 16-ranked Cyclones with a 51-percent win probability.
And that doesn’t even mention the fact that the teams are schematically similar as well, both offensively and defensively.
Simply put, it’s safe to expect a close contest on Saturday, especially considering how the 2018 Texas slate has played out, as eight of the Longhorns’ 10 appearances have been decided by a single score. For Texas, the good news to that end is that Herman’s team has come out on top more times than not, winning five of those eight one-score outcomes, including its most recent on the road in a last-second, 41-34 win over Texas Tech.
Can Texas build upon that momentum and notch a third consecutive win over Iowa State, or will the Cyclones five-game conference winning streak — the best in program history — consume yet another ranked foe on the Forty Acres?
What was once on the brink of a lost season has since been found.
Between Kyle Kempt going down in the season-opener with an MCL injury and backup gunslinger Zeb Noland struggling to produce points, Iowa State opened the season at 1-3, averaging a mere 299.5 yards and 17.5 points per game. What a difference a competent quarterback can make, even should it be a true freshman such as Brock Purdy — formerly the No. 841 player and No. 36 pro-style quarterback in the 2018 class.
Suddenly, Iowa State is averaging 34.6 points and 426.8 yards per game throughout its five-game winning streak and the passing attack now ranks 30th in S&P+, despite such a sluggish start.
“Purdy is — the guy is undefeated. He’s 5-0,” Herman said of what he’s most impressed with about Purdy. “He’s got a ton of moxie, nothing phases that kid. It doesn’t matter the opponent, the atmosphere, the stadium, he’s got that ‘it’ factor, and he’s got really, really good legs.
“He can make plays with his feet when things break down, and not just as a runner but he can extend plays and throw the ball down the field,” Herman added.
Though Purdy is far from the only component that’s allowing Iowa State’s offense to fire on all cylinders, he’s certainly the key cog.
Since taking the reins against Oklahoma State, Purdy has completed 68.6 percent of his passes (83-121), which marks the 11th-most accurate effort in the country. When considering his 1,315 yards for 13 touchdowns with only two interceptions, Purdy’s passer efficiency rating of 192.0 trails only Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (207.7) and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray (212.0). And as Herman alluded to, Purdy’s passing prowess is complemented by his ability to extend and create plays with his feet. Sacks excluded, Purdy is the team’s second-leading rusher, as his 57 carries have netted 311 yards and two scores.
Coincidently, the Cyclones are 5-0 with Purdy behind center, with two key wins coming over No. 25 Oklahoma State and No. 6 West Virginia — the two teams that toppled Texas as of late.
Of course, it certainly helps when a quarterback — especially a young and inexperienced one, though that’s been hard to tell as it pertains to Purdy — has a talented receiver corps to rely upon, and more specifically, a truly elite talent in junior Hakeem Butler.
Though the raw numbers aren’t overwhelming, as Butler’s 816 receiving yards ranks 33rd nationally, and his 4.0 receptions per game are tied for 136th, the physical possession receiver leads the nation with an average of 22.7 yards per catch. Texas hasn’t had much success slowing elite receivers this season, and Todd Orlando’s unit will now be tasked with attempting to do just that against Butler.
Elsewhere, again, the numbers aren’t overwhelming, but Butler is surrounded by competent company. Redshirt freshman Tarique Milton has hauled in 27 of the 30 passes thrown to him, good for a tremendous 90 percent catch rate, and his 318 yards rank second on the team. Junior Deshaunte Jones has been a considerably efficient option as well, catching 35 of his 44 targets for 302 yards and three scores. Senior Matthew Eaton (23 receptions, 223 yards) has seen his share of success as well, while freshman tight end Charlie Kolar has contributed at key moments, crossing pay dirt on three of his seven receptions.
Though Iowa State doesn’t collectively present one of the more imposing wide receiver corps Texas will have seen this season, the Cyclones — and specifically, Butler — are plenty capable of having a field day against a defense that ranks 70th in passing S&P+ (100.2), 84th in passing completion rate (61.5%), and as low as 107th in passing marginal explosiveness (0.31).
However, for a pro spread offense that often utilizes the run to open opportunities in the passing game, Saturday could see the Cyclones suffer through some early woes, as Iowa State will be without star running back David Montgomery for the first half as he serves a suspension for fighting in the win over Baylor.
For obvious reasons, Montgomery’s presence should be sorely missed, even if it’s only for the first half. Despite missing the Oklahoma State game with a shoulder injury and most of the second half of the Baylor game for the fighting penalty that will limit him in Austin, Montgomery has amassed 765 yards and six touchdowns in the ground this season, and his 95.6 yards per game is the second-best effort in the Big 12, trailing only Kansas State’s Alex Barnes.
In his early absence, Iowa State will implement a running-back-by-committee rotation, led by the speedy Kene Nwangwu, but unless Purdy successfully shoulder’s the bulk of the load, Montgomery missing the first half should be a noticeable blow to a ground game that ranks 94th in opportunity rate (43.4%) and stuff rate (20.9%), 105th in rushing marginal efficiency (10%), 113th in rushing marginal explosiveness (-0.19), and collectively, 108th in rushing S&P+ (91.7).
Texas isn’t exactly world-beaters in preventing the run, ranking 57th in rushing S&P+ and poorly in numerous other rushing defense categories, but Iowa State likely being forced into being fairly one-dimensional early could play into Orlando’s hands if he can dial up — and if Texas can execute — the appropriate pressure-coverage combinations.
After allowing three consecutive 500-yard offensive explosions, the Texas defense performing well would be a welcomed sight for sore eyes, but a stout defensive showing is to be expected from Iowa State.
As Herman said on Monday, “This is on paper the best defense in the conference,” and he would be right, as Iowa State’s defense, which ranks 26th in S&P+, will be the best Texas has seen this season.
Though defensive coordinator Jon Heacock oversees a collection of individually talented Cyclones, it’s the coverage-heavy, multiple ‘cloud’ scheme that’s allowed Iowa State’s defense to emerge as one of the nation’s elite groups.
In fact, as Herman noted during his Monday afternoon press conference, Iowa State’s cloud defense — which Texas has since adopted and transformed into the Lighting dime defense — was first introduced last season in Texas’ 17-7 win over the Cyclones, in which Iowa State limited the Longhorns to just 312 yards of total offense.
“That was the unveiling of that dime package of theirs that has flourished throughout last season and obviously into this season, making them the best defense statistically in our conference,” Herman said.
“So they have evolved. They’re doing a little bit more. Last year it was almost every snap, cloud the corners and play what we call the “joker” at about eight to ten yards and let him kind of run the alley, kind of a bear defensive look.
“This year a little bit more multiple, a little bit more corners, a little bit more halves in the coverage schemes, still not a whole lot of man, but they are pressuring a little bit more, had a lot of success pressuring West Virginia and so I do think that -- again, the scheme makes it very difficult. It’s similar to West Virginia a little bit, where you’re going to feel like there’s eight guys in the box in the run game, but then when you drop back to pass there is also eight guys dropping back to pass, too.”
On film, considering that Texas adopted the scheme last season, Iowa State’s defense will look quite similar to what the Longhorns have done under Orlando.
Generally speaking, Iowa State’s personnel will almost always be a 3-3-5 or a 3-2-6, and as Herman noted, it will come with plenty of multiplicity. Often times, you’ll see seven or eight bodies smother the line of scrimmage, but once the ball is snapped, seven or eight bodies will be back in coverage, or vice versa — Iowa State may show very little pressure with just three down linemen and then send six or seven in a multiple blitz.
Though the results have largely been positive, however, there have been some areas of weakness.
For example, a secondary led by the likes of Greg Eisworth (55 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU), Braxton Lewis (44 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 INT, 2 PBU), and Brian Peavy (8 PBU) ranks 18th in passing S&P+ (113.2). The rushing defense ranks the same (18th), which, in addition to defensive backs making plays on the ground, is headlined by linebackers Marcel Speaks (38.5 tackles, 6 run stuffs), Willie Harvey (40.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL), Malik Rose (36.5 tackles, 7 TFL, 11 run stuffs), and defensive end JaQuon Bailey (11 TFL, 11 run stuffs).
It’s a defense as a whole that excels in pass and run defense, and doesn’t allow many explosive plays, ranking 28th in IsoPPP (1.07), 11th in Marginal Explosiveness (-0.10), 9th in SD marginal explosiveness (-0.13), and 32nd in big-play rate (6.3%),
However, among Iowa State’s few defensive weaknesses is its pass rush. On the surface, the numbers may be a bit misleading, as Iowa State has totaled 24 sacks this season, but 18 of those came in just three games (Akron, Oklahoma State, West Virginia), while the other six games have seen the Cyclones net just six total sacks. Though those three games have allowed Iowa State to climb to 29th in sack rate (7.8%), the defense is largely lacking in that area otherwise — 62nd in passing down sack rate (7.8%), 93rd in blitz down sack rate (6.9%), and 94th in blitz down success rate (32.3%).
Furthermore, getting off the field on third down hasn’t been an easy chore for the Cyclones, which are tied for 81st in third-down defense (.407%), and rank 90th in third and long success rate (27.9%) and 91st in third and medium success rate (50.9%).
What’s the best way to keep the new-and-improved, Brock Purdy-led offense contained? Keep it on the sidelines by converting and keeping the chains moving on third downs.
Of course, this will be easier said than done against the Big 12’s top defense, but in a game that should be fairly evenly-matched from top to bottom, every edge is important, and that’s one of the few Texas should enjoy.
Texas hasn’t sent its seniors off with a win at DKR since 2013, when Case McCoy’s Longhorns cruised past Texas Tech, 41-16. If that’s going to change on Saturday, the margin for error will be minimal, and Texas will have to make the most of Montgomery’s early absence and control the clock by keeping the chains moving. Not to mention, at least slowing the budding star that is Brock Purdy will be essential.
The good news for Texas is many more times than not, Sam Ehlinger has been the best quarterback on the field, and the much-improved offensive has afforded the sophomore the time to find his own crop of high-caliber receivers. Elite Iowa State defense or otherwise, Texas will quite likely find ways to put points up. Unlike in the losses to Oklahoma State and West Virginia, though, can the defense come up with enough stops to slow another (suddenly) potent Iowa State offense?
After struggling so mightily as of late, the Texas secondary will finally be healthy, and that health, along with an efficient Ehlinger-led offense, lifts Texas to 8-3 on Senior Night.
Prediction: Texas 34, Iowa State 31