Few people had this night game in Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium circled as one to pay attention to when the 2018 season began. Now, the contest between the Longhorns and Cyclones has turned into a tilt with Big 12 implications.
Both teams need a win here in order to have an outside shot at the conference title. For the Cyclones, taking a win out of Austin would be one of the biggest achievements of the Matt Campbell era. Aside from giving Iowa State consecutive seven win seasons, the Cyclones road to the Big 12 championship becomes entirely possible, likely even. If the Cyclones beat the Longhorns, they would need only to beat Kansas State to hold the tiebreaker over West Virginia should the Mountaineers lose in either of their next two contests.
Playing for the Big 12 title would be a first for Iowa State and would make 2018 one of the most successful seasons in school history.
Championship seasons have been more common for the Texas Longhorns in that university’s long history, but the Longhorns haven’t played for a league title since facing Nebraska in a close game in 2009.
Second year head coach Tom Herman would very much like to be the one to get Texas back to those winning ways. After catapulting to a Top 10 ranking earlier in the year and looking like they’d booked their tickets for Arlington, the Longhorns have lost two of their last three games. At 5-2 in conference play, Texas needs to win out in order to have a realistic shot at playing in Jerry World at the beginning of next month.
They’d need help of course – a West Virginia loss to Oklahoma State this weekend would put a 9-3 Texas Longhorns team in the title game regardless of what happens Thanksgiving weekend. Outside of that, the Longhorns would be hoping that Oklahoma – who plays Kansas this week – would lose one of their next two games. Texas, hypothetically at 7-2 in conference play, would hold the tiebreaker over the Sooners.
Both of these teams know what’s at stake in this contest. When the game kicks off on Saturday evening, players from Texas and Iowa State will look to have their best performance of the 2018 season.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES (6-3, 5-2)
The Cyclones come into this game riding a five game win streak, one that started when true freshman Brock Purdy made his college football debut and helped Iowa State defeat Oklahoma State 48-42 on the road. Purdy is a mobile quarterback who’s decisive in the pocket for such a young player.
He’s got big wideouts like redshirt junior Hakeem Butler, who stands at six feet and six inches tall. Butler isn’t the only target that Purdy can go to, as the Cyclones are loaded with athletic players who can catch the ball.
Running back David Montgomery is the best player on this team, and probably the best running back in the Big 12. You wouldn’t know it just from the 765 yards he’s racked up this season. Yet, Montgomery’s ability to break tackles and break away from the defense will propel him into the professional ranks. Behind him, the Cyclones have some depth at running back, which they will need on Saturday, since Montgomery will sit out a first half suspension and rejoin his team in the third quarter.
Defensively, Iowa State has arguably the best defense in the entire conference. Working from their renowned three man front, they are giving up only 22.6 points per game in conference play after facing some of the best offenses in the nation. Even though there are sometimes issues with their pass coverage, defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has his guys defending the run at a top level.
TEXAS LONGHORNS (7-3, 5-2)
For the Longhorns, their biggest question marks are on the defensive side of the ball.
Most of the Longhorns’ issues center on the play of their secondary, which has been inconsistent this season. Particularly, this team has been prone to giving up big plays. That has led Texas to give up an average of 38 points per game over their last three contests, including 24 in the fourth quarter of last weeks win against Texas Tech.
The play of the offense has been a pleasant surprise. Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger has been the biggest reason for the Longhorns’ success there. Ehlinger has thrown only two interceptions in comparison to 20 touchdowns tossed, and he’s carried the ball for over 300 yards. His abilities as a dual threat quarterback make Ehlinger tougher for defenses to contain.
It helps that he has some receivers around him, however. Juniors Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey are his two main targets, and both are tall players who can go up and get the ball. Devin Duvernay, who’s probably one of the fastest players on the team, is usually the third option at wideout.
Graduate transfer Tre Watson is the leading rusher for the Longhorns, having amassed 484 yards in 2018, but keep an eye on freshman Keontay Ingram, who is more explosive out of the backfield.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR IOWA STATE
Get Big Plays In The Passing Game – Especially with David Montgomery out for the first half of this game, the Cyclones need to have success through the air. Purdy’s been able to do that throughout the games he’s started, and he will likely get his opportunities against Texas. The Longhorns have been susceptible in their pass coverage this season, and coming up big through the air could really swing some momentum Iowa State’s way.
Take Care Of The Ball – Both of these teams are usually pretty reliable when it comes to not turning the ball over. Philosophically, they are both also very similar, especially in the way that each squad tries to methodically move the ball down the field and control the ball. For Iowa State, losing the turnover battle on the road would probably be difficult to overcome.
Keep Ehlinger In Check – The Iowa State defense has been able to hold down most any quarterback they’ve faced this season. If the Cyclones are able to put Texas in long down-and-distance situations, they’ll get the Longhorns off schedule, but only if they keep Ehlinger from picking up needed yardage on third down.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR TEXAS
Be Patient With The Run Game – The Longhorns will be going against the stoutest run defense in the country on Saturday, but it will be key for Texas to play the kind of ball control game that they want in Austin. Doing so involves continuing to stick with the running game even if it’s only yielding minimal gains.
Get Pressure On Purdy Early On – Against the Cyclones, the Longhorns will face one of their biggest tests of the season on defense. Purdy is playing at a very high level right now, but if Texas can get pressure on the young player, they have a good chance of getting Iowa State’s offense off rhythm. Purdy is certainly a threat running the ball, so Texas will have to bring that pressure without letting him escape the pocket.
Be Special On Special Teams – This is going to be a game with two teams that are pretty evenly matched, so if Texas is going to come out on top, I think they are going to need to separate themselves in terms of special teams. If the Longhorns can be the better team in terms of their return game and their kicking game, they will likely come out ahead.
There’s a lot on the line for both of these teams, so I expect this to be a very close game from start to finish. A team’s best players tend to step up in big games like this one, and this contest will likely be decided by who makes more big plays for their side of the ball.
It’s tempting to go with Iowa State for several reasons. The Cyclones look like a more complete team right now. Outside of their offensive line, there’s not much of a glaring weakness on offense and few issues on the defensive side of the ball. Texas has been mostly solid outside of their defensive play, however, something that could very well be the deciding factor in this game. Add in that the Longhorns are playing on senior night, a game that hasn’t exactly been kind to them – they’ve lost every final home game of the season they’ve played since 2013.
At the same time, the Longhorns do play a much better brand of football at home. That’s seemed to be true throughout the Tom Herman era, and I expect the Longhorns to play well in this spot. Texas is the favorite in this matchup, and I think that in the end the Longhorns will have just enough to win this one. Texas by three points.