Time: 6:30 PM CDT
Location: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA
Line: Texas -8
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network - Affiliate information here
Big XII opener. Thursday night. National ESPN broadcast. What more could a fan want in this game? What's that? A win or two more? Well I guess that's probably a fair request to make. No doubt that ESPN did not get what they bargained for when they originally scheduled this game. Instead of a repeat of 2011 when Iowa State was the plucky upstart and Texas was ranked and looking for revenge we get two programs that are in desperate need of some early conference season momentum for completely different reasons.
Texas is playing to save Mack Brown's job. Brown may say that they're playing to win the Big XII but you don't lose on the road to BYU like you did, lose to Ole Miss like you did, and hire a retread of a defensive coordinator and expect to win the Big XII when Oklahoma is beginning to surge and Baylor is torching everything in sight. Oh no, Mack Brown won't admit it but he's went all in on 19-22 year old kids saving his career.
For Iowa State they're looking to keep up the momentum gained from their first win of the season last Thursday in Tulsa and try to get back to even to at least force a salvageable season in Paul Rhoads' 5th year at the helm. If Iowa State pulls the upset to get to 2-2 then a lot of people will feel the team is back at square one, but took a very circuitous route to get there.
When We Last Left Off...
Iowa State won their first game of the season by defeating Tulsa in the rubber match of their 13-month series, 38-21. Aaron Wimberly became the first Cyclone running back to break 100 yards since Shontrelle Johnson did it against Tulsa in the opener in 2012. All in all Wimberly finished with a game high 137 rushing yards on 19 carries and added 31 yards receiving and 32 yards on a kick return to bring his all purpose yardage to an even 200 on the night. Sam Richardson remained consistent completing 26 of 41 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns to one interception.
Texas gave Greg Robinson an entire week to prepare and his defense returned the favor by holding Kansas State to 115 yards rushing on 38 carries in a 31-21 victory that wasn't even that close. Offensively Johnathan Gray had the best game of his career with a 141 yard, two touchdown performance on 28 carries. David Ash's concussion symptoms reappeared before the end of the first half and Case McCoy's relief effort only resulted in nine passes.
Iowa State is 1-9 all-time against Texas with the lone win coming in 2010 in Austin.
Last Five Games
2012: Texas 33, Iowa State 7
2011: Texas 37, Iowa State 14
2010: Iowa State 28, Texas 21
2007: Texas 56, Iowa State 3 (Fuck you Gene Chizik)
2006: Texas 37, Iowa State 14
Over the past five games Texas has outscored Iowa State 184-66 for an average score of 37-13. Iowa State's 28 points scored in 2010 account for 42% of their scoring output against Texas since 2006. All-time Texas has outscored Iowa State 360-178, or an average score of 36-18.
Iowa State Offense
The Courtney Messingham Pants Shitting Extravaganza took a detour somewhere around Wichita last week and never made its way to Tulsa. Inserting Aaron Wimberly as starter and making an early commitment to breaking tendencies on 1st and 2nd down ultimately carried Iowa State to victory. But as I wrote a few days ago this offense left some plays and points on the field. Iowa State recovered two non-garbage time turnovers in Tulsa territory and only had seven points to show for it. Capitalizing on turnovers will be the name of the game this week and throughout much of the Big XII season and the Cyclones have to find a way to put points on the board with a short field.
We'll find out on Thursday night which Iowa State offense is going to be the "offense of record" for the 2013 season. Through three games it can be argued Iowa State's offense played about six complete quarters of football to the twelve available. At this point the offense is very much a toss up in which version you're going to get.
Do you get the balanced version from the 1st half against UNI, the 4th quarter vs Iowa, and most of the Tulsa game or do you get the tire fire of an offense that insists on running into the middle and is unimaginative on 1st and 2nd down?
The Texas defense has been panned by just about anyone in the know in college football this entire season. I will lean on this excellent breakdown from Barking Carnival about Texas' woes against the option and how they predicted they would fix it against Kansas State. Long story short, they did just about everything Barking Carnival suggested and Greg Robinson started to mix Texas' old Cover 2 scheme back into things. The result was a Kansas State team that ran for only 115 yards on 38 attempts. The hidden stat in this is backup quarterback Daniel Sams' production: 8 attempts, 48 yards. Rest of KSU offense: 30 attempts, 67 yards. And I suppose Tyler Lockett's 237 yards receiving are a big deal too.
The Match Up
That hidden stat mentioned above? That's the key to this game. Texas improved but did so against a Kansas State team that consistently has struggled to run the ball with traditional calls this entire season. Enter mobile quarterback Daniel Sams and Texas' gap control issues appeared again. One of Sams' runs went for 23 yards so the big plays are still there, but will certainly be more limited than they were against BYU and Ole Miss.
Until Wimberly was inserted in the starting line up last week Iowa State struggled to get a consistent ground game going as well. Doubly so with the injury to Sam Richardson. With Richardson progressing every week you can expect to see him get more involved in the run game than he was against Tulsa. Personally I feel this team is that much better when they can run without needing Richardson, but in this case his feet are going to be needed if Iowa State is going to win this game.
BYU torched Texas with a simple power read that pulled a guard and gave the option for the quarterback to keep or hand off to the running back to follow the guard through the hole. In the 2nd half they flipped the script on Texas and still pulled the guard but now the quarterback would be following him if he kept. It's a basic wrinkle in the spread option offense and one Iowa State has ran in the past.
Of course now Texas will scheme against it so what should Courtney Messingham and Iowa State do to keep them off balance? There are three constraint plays that could catch Texas cheating.
The first one should look familiar:
That's Jarvis West's touchdown against Oklahoma last year. Notice the pulling Farniok, the read with White following Woody (it's own wrinkle) and eventually the flip to West with Bykowski kicked out taking on a cornerback in space. If Texas wants to cheat the simple reads this is exactly how you beat it.
The second is the play that resulted in Wimberly's 31 yard reception last week, which was to motion a receiver to the backfield, fake the hand off, and catch Wimberly on the wheel route. The receivers pulled the safeties to the hash marks and the linebackers bit on the fake long enough to let Wimberly behind them.
The last play is simple and actually showed up in the win over Tulsa last week. Iowa State has always had plays where the quarterback reads for the zone read but can pull and throw a bubble screen instead. Except this time around Sam Richardson has shown to be rather adept at throwing the screen, which forces defenses out of the box.
The play in question came with 1:07 left in the 2nd quarter. Richardson took the snap, read the DT (YES! DT!), handed to Wimberly, and his burst caught a Tulsa defense napping and he accelerated for a 24 yard gain that set up West's tying touchdown catch. It wasn't the run that was special though. It was Richardson's pump fake after the hand off that froze both the weak side linebacker and safety as they anticipated the bubble. Had it not been for the play side corner forcing Wimberly inside the safety would have never been able to recover and stop the touchdown.
Iowa State is not going to be able to beat Texas' speed or physicality straight up. Instead they're going to have to force Texas into situations where they gamble and get burnt for it. If I'm Courtney Messingham I have two game plans in the booth: A plan to eat clock and get inside Texas' 30 and a plan once inside the 30. The constraint plays above will work wonders on a Texas defense just outside the red zone.
Iowa State Defense
Iowa State has simplified things this season after the loss of A.J. Klein and Jake Knott and it's paid dividends as the defense has improved noticeably from the first to third game. A lot of the coverages are simple Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks but Wally Burnham has been bringing more blitzes on 3rd down than in the past. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One, the defense is faster in the middle of the field. Luke Knott is faster than his brother and Jared Brackens is a safety playing linebacker. Second, all three linebackers have struggled in zone coverage and none more than Brackens. I have to imagine the logic here is if Brackens is the weak link in coverage it makes sense to use his speed to blitz and bait a quarterback into a throw to the vacated space... that is now occupied by someone else.
Burnham mentioned a wrinkle they're installing this week for Texas and your guess is as good as mine as to what the wrinkle is. With Case McCoy filling in for an injured David Ash Texas' gameplan will be simple: run Johnathan Gray, rinse, repeat. What Burnham has in store for McCoy will be interesting to watch.
Last time out Johnathan Gray had a career night with 141 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns. After Ash started showing signs of his earlier concussion Case McCoy came in and threw a whopping nine times as Texas was content to sit on a 10 point halftime lead and just run the ball with Gray.
Ash is out again this week along with offensive lineman Josh Cochran. The banged up WR corps returns Daje Johnson but Mike Davis is a game time decision. If Davis cannot go that will be incredibly detrimental for Texas as Davis is the only one consistent enough to stretch a defense vertically. Kansas State played soft coverage even with McCoy in and it was one of the reasons Gray was allowed some of the freedom he experienced in piling up his yardage. If Davis can't go the respect Texas' passing game gets from Iowa State might be next to none to start with.
The Match Up
Since the UNI debacle Iowa State has only allowed 3.4 yards per carry and their ability to stop the run again will be front and center on Thursday night. Burnham's wrinkle for Texas has to be run oriented in my mind but until we see something new on the field I really can't say what it will be.
David Irving was again a monster in the middle of the field last week but after Tulsa started double teaming him on passing downs he became somewhat of a non-factor. Iowa State's anemic pass rush again reared its head and even with Cory Morrissey and Nick Kron getting to Cody Green they were still late by a half second enough to allow the pass to be thrown accurately.
Compounding that is Brackens' previously mentioned poor coverage skills and a surprising lack of Jeremiah George to control the middle of the field. It appears he's still doing too much and if he pulls himself out of position too much against Texas he's likely to get burnt by Johnson or Jaxon Shipley. My expectation is on obvious passing downs you start to see more of Charlie Rogers in the Nickel. He seems more comfortable in space in the passing game than Brackens and still has a big body to support the run if need be.
Texas will run the ball behind a line that only has one player listed below 300 pounds on the two-deep and they will do it often with Johnathan Gray. Gray was the top running back recruit in 2012 and is looking every part of it right now. It's easy to forget guys like Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron can spell him, but they can, and they probably will.
We probably won't see Iowa State be as aggressive on defense this week as they were against Tulsa. Texas has better team speed, a stronger line, and even Case McCoy has more of a pulse than Cody Green. Instead you're going to see the staple bend, don't break defense Burnham has employed the previous seasons. Texas will get their yards behind the biggest line Iowa State has faced this season, but if the defense can bow up inside the 20 and hold Texas to some field goals they might just keep the Cyclones in this deep into the 4th quarter.
We won't talk about kicking. I already covered that in my Tulsa postmortem. Iowa State is only allowing 19 yards per kick return, which is good enough for 39th nationally and 4th in the Big XII. Texas isn't faring as well however.
They're 104th nationally allowing 25 yards per return and 121st nationally in punt return yardage allowed with over 30 yards allowed per punt. Granted, they've punted four times the entire year but one went 73 yards for a touchdown and the 40 yards. Texas' problem with tackling in space translates to the special teams as well, so perhaps the third leg of the football tripod will set Iowa State up for some short field success on Thursday night.
Solid, but Not Quite a Lock Prediction: Sam Richardson gets his first rushing touchdown of the year.
Would Love to See, and Might: Aaron Wimberly becomes the first Iowa State running back with back-to-back 100 yard games since Alexander Robinson rattled off three straight 100+ yard games against Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska in 2010.
Would Love to See, but Won't: Iowa State win the time of possession battle. Both teams will try to grind it out on the ground, but if Iowa State wins the battle they win the game.
WRNL Beer Pick of the Week
Not a lot of tailgating to be had for this writer today but one thing I will be drinking is New Glarus' Thumprint IIPA. Light bodied, citrusy, and 9.5% ABV. Frequent readers know I love my hops and if I get to only have one or two beers tomorrow you bet something strong makes it in the cooler.
When I was piecing this preview together earlier this week I had myself fully convinced Iowa State would lose to Texas in much the same fashion they did in 2011. Self destruct on offense, eventually fold up shop on defense.
Then I got to writing and illustrating the offensive ideas above. The quarterback play is better than 2011, the running backs are a push, the receivers are better, and the line is noticeably worse but is young and has enough depth to eventually gel late in the year. What the defense lacks in experience they make up for in speed.
Still, something keeps sticking out that gives me an uneasy feeling about this game. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what could happen. Does McCoy channel his older brother and tear up the Iowa State defense? Does Mike Davis get loose and have a career day? Does Johnathan Gray... can't believe I'm saying this... look like UNI's David Johnson?
Maybe the offense reverts back to its form against Iowa... before Quenton Bundrage got loose. Or the flashes of capability we saw against Tulsa end up becoming the norm.
The undying optimist in me says Courtney Messingham and Chris Klenakis are going to put together a rushing attack that takes advantage of Texas' aggressiveness and eats up the clock, but the realist knows that Messingham can't consistently keep a defense off balance. Texas may have their problems on defense but they're still Texas and they still have two 300 pound linemen eating up space in the middle.
This game should have been another "turn the corner" game, but after the early season woes it's all about survival, and I don't think this team has the mettle yet to do that.
Iowa State 17
PS - Leave your predictions in the comments below, come join us in G7 tomorrow if you're tailgating, and don't forget to bring the rain gear!