The Oklahoma State Cowboys are heading to Ames this weekend for what looks like a must-win game in the Big 12 race against the Iowa State Cyclones.
If the Cyclones (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) lose, they would fall behind in the race for second place in the conference standings and need major help to make the conference title game in December. An Oklahoma State (6-0, 3-0) loss wouldn't eliminate the Pokes from contention, but it also wouldn't leave them much room for error down the stretch of the season.
Here's what to watch when two of the Big 12's best meet this weekend.
No. 8 Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa State -7
When Oklahoma State Has the Ball
The Cowboys continued to ride their rushing attack to a 32-24 victory over Texas last week. OSU ran the ball 49 times for 220 yards, with running back Jaylen Warren shouldering most of the load. The Utah State transfer carried the ball 33 times for 193 yards.
OSU quarterback Spencer Sanders connected with his receivers on some timely throws — most notably, a touchdown pass to Brennan Presley. For the most part, however, the junior put together an uninspiring performance. Sanders ended the game 19-of-32 passing for 178 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
Sanders and company will face arguably their toughest test of the season on Saturday. Iowa State is leading the Big 12 in scoring defense at 16.3 points per game. Of note for the Cowboys, the Cyclones are especially tough against the run, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry.
When Iowa State Has the Ball
After struggling out of the gate, the Cyclones are rounding into form on offense. ISU is averaging about 43 points per game in its last four contests, including a 33-20 win last week over Kansas State.
When the going gets tough, ISU is continuing to lean on Breece Hall. The junior running back put up 197 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries last week against the Wildcats. Hall also ran the ball 27 times for 190 yards and two scores in a 31-29 loss to Baylor on Sept. 25.
Much like the Cyclones, OSU doesn't give up much territory on the ground. The Cowboys are allowing only three yards per rushing attempt. That could force ISU quarterback Brock Purdy to the air in search of dangerous wideout Xavier Hutchinson and all-conference tight end Charlie Kolar.
This matchup pits strengths on strengths: Both teams run the ball and stop the run with extraordinary effectiveness. The mobility of Sanders at QB may give OSU an edge in that regard, but it's a slight one.
Ultimately, though, a couple of factors are pointing to the Cyclones coming out on top. First, the spectators at Jack Trice Stadium should be fired up to watch the home team get its shot at revenge for a 24-21 loss to the Cowboys in 2020. Second, between the two squads, ISU does a far better job taking care of the ball. OSU has nine giveaways through six games, versus just six for the Cyclones. Sanders has been especially turnover-prone in 2021 with five interceptions in 128 pass attempts.
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy may have a trick or two at his disposal to help his Pokes manufacture some offense through big passing plays. Unfortunately for OSU, ISU has given us more reason to believe it can find success throwing on the Cowboys' defense this year. A couple of ill-advised throws from Sanders will likely find their way into the hands of ISU defenders, enabling the Cyclones to extend an insurmountable lead in the second half of this slugfest.
Prediction: Iowa State 28, Oklahoma State 17
Podcast: Previewing Week 8 + CFB Expansion + Washington State Coaching Search
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is the founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.