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Iowa State Cyclones vs. Texas Longhorns Prediction and Preview

Iowa State Cyclones vs. Texas Longhorns Prediction and Preview

Iowa State Cyclones vs. Texas Longhorns Prediction and Preview

Iowa State and Texas meet on Saturday for a key conference showdown in the race to play for the Big 12 Championship. The Cyclones and Longhorns both sit at 5-2 in league play entering Week 12, so this matchup in Austin is essentially an elimination game.

While Texas isn’t necessarily “back” as a national title contender, coach Tom Herman’s program has made significant strides over the last two years. After a 7-6 finish last fall, the Longhorns are 7-3 through 10 contests in 2018. If Texas beats Iowa State and Kansas in the regular season finale and earns a victory in a bowl, this program would reach double-digit victories for the first time since 2009. The Longhorns knocked off Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry this year but dropped the opener to Maryland, lost in the final seconds to West Virginia and stumbled on the road against Oklahoma State. Herman certainly has this program trending up, and the Longhorns need a win on Saturday to keep hopes alive for a trip to the Big 12 title game in early December.

Under coach Matt Campbell’s watch, Iowa State has emerged as a program on the rise within the Big 12 and on the national scene. The Cyclones finished 3-9 in Campbell’s first year but showed marked improvement last fall with an 8-5 finish. The program’s trajectory continued up this season, as Iowa State sits at 6-3 overall with three contests remaining. Led by one of the Big 12’s top defenses and a rising star at quarterback in Brock Purdy, the Cyclones knocked off West Virginia earlier this year and enter Saturday’s game on a five-game winning streak.

Texas holds a 13-2 series edge over Iowa State. The Longhorns and Cyclones have only one previous meeting where both teams were ranked. Iowa State’s only win in Austin took place in 2010.

Iowa State at Texas

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Longhorn Network

Spread: Texas -3

Three Things to Watch

1. The Quarterbacks

Saturday’s game in Austin features two of the Big 12’s rising stars and breakout players under center. And needless to say, the performance of Texas’ Sam Ehlinger and Iowa State’s Brock Purdy will play a huge role on how this matchup is decided.

Texas’ Sam Ehlinger flashed potential as a true freshman last fall and has continued to build on that in 2018. The sophomore is completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,483 yards and 20 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Ehlinger also has 343 yards and nine scores on the ground. His favorite target is Lil’Jordan Humphrey (63 grabs), with Collin Johnson (50) and Devin Duvernay (31) up next. Johnson did not play in the win over Texas Tech last week due to injury, which allowed Jerrod Heard (six catches) to take on a bigger role in the passing game. Johnson’s status is uncertain going into the weekend’s matchup, so Heard and Duvernay could be a key part of the passing game on Saturday night once again. Ehlinger has not tossed an interception since the opener against Maryland. That efficiency and mistake-free play will be crucial on Saturday against an Iowa State secondary that leads the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense.

Iowa State’s Brock Purdy didn’t open the year as the starter, but he’s been a huge reason behind the team’s five-game winning streak. An injury to Kyle Kempt opened the door for Zeb Noland, who eventually gave way to Purdy. The true freshman threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns in his first opportunity for extended action against Oklahoma State on Oct. 6. Purdy followed up that performance with 254 yards and three scores in an upset win over West Virginia and has provided steady play in victories over Texas Tech, Kansas and Baylor over the last three weeks. Similar to Ehlinger, Purdy is a threat to make plays or pickup key yardage on the ground. The freshman has 252 yards and two rushing scores on 67 attempts this year. All-America candidate Hakeem Butler (36 catches for 816 yards) is Purdy’s go-to target, but the Cyclones have a well-rounded group in place with Tarique Milton, Deshaunte Jones and Matthew Eaton each having over 20 catches this year.

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The Big 12 is never short on good quarterback play, and all signs point to Ehlinger and Purdy leading the next wave of standouts. Both signal-callers are efficient, can connect on big or clutch moments in the passing game and use their legs to make plays on the ground. Which signal-caller will deliver the better performance on Saturday night?

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 12

2. Which Team Gets Enough Stops on Defense?

The best defense in the Big 12 this year resides in Ames. Campbell’s group is holding opponents to just 20.4 points a game and 4.9 yards a play. The Cyclones lead the conference in rush defense and have allowed only five scores on the ground this year. Iowa State also ranks first in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense, has generated 24 sacks and leads the league in red zone defense.

Texas’ defense was projected to rank among the best in the Big 12 this year, but injuries have hit coordinator Todd Orlando’s group hard in recent games. As a result, the secondary has been torched by opposing passing attacks. The Longhorns gave up 454 yards to Texas Tech last week, 346 to West Virginia on Nov. 3 and 321 to Oklahoma State on Oct. 27. With some injury concerns in the secondary once again, Texas has to get more of a pass rush (only 19 sacks this year) and get off the field on third downs (ninth in the Big 12 in third-down defense). Orlando’s group has been solid against the run, limiting teams to just 4.1 yards a carry and 143.9 per contest. On Thursday, reports after Herman’s media availability seemed to indicate safety Brandon Jones is questionable, but fellow safety Caden Sterns and cornerback Davante Davis were set to play on Saturday. Safety Josh Thompson is out for the matchup against the Cyclones.

Whichever defense does a better job of limiting the damage on big plays could decide the winner of this game. Iowa State has allowed only six plays of 40 or more yards this fall. On the flipside, Texas has surrendered 15. If the Longhorns can break a few big plays and limit the Cyclones’ opportunities on offense, that’s a good start to reverse some of the problems on defense this team has experienced in recent weeks.

3. David Montgomery’s First-Half Suspension (and Texas’ Ground Game)

Iowa State’s offense will be short handed for the first 30 minutes of Saturday’s game. Standout running back David Montgomery was ejected in the second half of last week’s game against Baylor and has to sit out the first half of Saturday’s matchup against Texas.

Not having Montgomery is a huge blow to a team that averages 36 rushing attempts a game. Purdy is the No. 2 rusher on Iowa State’s offense with 252 yards, with Kene Nwangwu (112), Johnnie Lang (56) and Sheldon Croney (43) up next. All three players could see a role in the first half with Montgomery sidelined. Montgomery has rushed for 765 yards and six touchdowns and added 10 catches for 54 yards through his eight appearances this season. The junior’s 95.6 per-game average ranks second among Big 12 running backs and comprises a bulk of Iowa State’s average output each contest (128.8)

Texas ranks third in the Big 12 with 401 rushing attempts and sixth in the conference in per-game production (155.5 ypg). True freshman Keaontay Ingram (568 yards) is the team’s best back, but Cal graduate transfer Tre Watson (484 yards) has also been effective.

Can Iowa State get enough production out of its other running backs to navigate Montgomery’s absence in the first half? And when Texas has the ball, can Ingram or Watson get on track against a tough front seven?

Final Analysis

Week 12’s slate is thin on appealing matchups, but this one in Austin should be one of the must-see games on Saturday. Iowa State’s rugged defense and playmaking ability of Purdy has Campbell’s team in the thick of the Big 12 title race. On the other sideline, Texas is certainly trending in the right direction under Herman but injuries have hindered the defense in recent weeks. Not having Montgomery is a significant blow to Iowa State’s hopes of a road win, but Purdy and this defense are good enough to navigate the first 30 minutes. Texas will be counting on a big (and mistake-free) game from Ehlinger to stay alive in the Big 12 title race. This one is a tossup, but let’s give a slight edge to the home team on Saturday night.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Texas

Prediction: Texas 31, Iowa State 27