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That game absolutely looked like two heavily flawed teams with conference title hopes leaving everything they had on the field in pursuit of a big win. Evidently Iowa State’s bad luck streak was no match for Texas’ horrendous initial game plan and then end of game management.
The Longhorns came into this game looking to impose their will on the Cyclones despite missing Collin Johnson and Cade Brewer, but that wasn’t happening. Iowa State played an exceptional game, locking down most of Texas’ favorite concepts and winning a large number of battles in the trenches to hold Texas to 54 rushing yards on 26 carries. The Cyclone offense was a bewildering blur, particularly early on, motioning TEs and WRs all over the place to create a dozen classic spread formations but with all kinds of rule-breaking alignments in terms of who was there.
The Longhorns were down 20-7 at one point and then appeared to be on the verge of getting routed. Then Tom Herman handed the game to Sam Ehlinger and was rewarded with a pair of 80-yard drives and a 21-20 lead to do with what he would with 5:22 left in the 4th quarter. With the game back in his hands, Tom Herman promptly dropped it and gave away any realistic chance of Texas winning that elusive Big 12 championship.
Quick thought no. 1: Sam Ehlinger played outstanding football
Lots of offensive players deserve some accolades for how they stormed back to take the lead with those two 80-yard (80 and 89) drives. Devin Duvernay caught crosser after crosser to pick up several third downs and keep Texas alive in that game. He finished with nine catches for 107 yards on the day. Roschon Johnson and Keaontay Ingram were giants on check downs, picking up steady gains with hard running and brilliants hands that made those long drives from four and five-wide sets possible. They combined for 6 catches, 62 yards, and a TD.
Brennan Eagles was inconsistent but made an outstanding play worthy of Collin Johnson’s position to put Texas within three (10-7) before the half. Malcolm Epps rewarded a stubborn insistence by the Longhorns on putting him in crucial spots with a big touchdown catch to take the lead. Flex TE is a better look for him, he’s still not quite there on realizing his potential there obviously but you can see flashes of something interesting.
Ehlinger was the best player on the field, going 22-40 for 273 yards at 6.8 ypa with three TDs and zero INTs, working most of the game against a defense flooding zones and bracketing multiple receivers or alternating in blitzes. It took an awful lot of patience and scrambling to get Texas in the lead working against those defensive calls without Collin Johnson or a run game.
Quick thought no. 2: Texas DBs played a great game
The DBs for Texas kept them in this game for a while. The gameplan was essentially wild blitzing all night with DBs left to track the ISU receivers on different motions and wonky formations with flex TEs. D’Shawn Jamison played a great game and snagged an INT that seemed to just find its way into his hands after he used his hands in press to deny an angle on a slant.
Iowa State had to spend a lot of the game throwing comebacks outside on Texas cornerbacks because they couldn’t win over the top against the Texas blitzes, eventually Jalen Green, Kobe Boyce, and Jamison had worked that out and were starting to take away those comebacks as well.
Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns also had tough tasks, essentially making sure that Orlando’s non-stop zone blitzing didn’t result in anyone springing free. Chris Brown, BJ Foster, and DeMarvion Overshown were used a little more like linebackers, hanging around and picking up receivers and tight ends while the LBs were firing into the backfield on snap after snap.
Todd Orlando went all in on being able to bring enough pressure both in terms of variety and literal heat on Brock “pump fake” Purdy that they could turn the Iowa State OL into a negative that cost the Cyclones the game. That worked out decently, but only because of the play of Texas’ DBs in coverage all day. Obviously they had one major bust to start the second half that ended up being the difference in the game, it was pretty remarkable that there weren’t more.
Quick thought no. 3: Tom Herman’s play-calling on the final drive was absurd
Playing conservative with a lead is one thing, trotting out hopeless formations and run calls that failed you for the entirety of the first half while backed up on your own 10-yard line with four minutes on the clock and a one-point lead is nonsense.
You’re going to end up punting pretty quickly and then you’re kicking to midfield or so to a team that will have three minutes and will need only to pick up a couple of first downs (which they’ve been doing all night) to be in position to kick a game-winning field goal. That Texas used the 12 personnel sets there with TEs that Iowa State had been abusing all game was just icing on the cake.
The last thing Iowa State wanted to see there was Texas going back to work in the spread sets and trying to drive down the field as though they were still facing a deficit. Instead Herman gave them exactly what they wanted. As has happened in every Texas loss this year, Tom Herman allowed the game to come down to the Texas defense rather than Sam Ehlinger.
Somehow that didn’t cost Texas the game though because Iowa State didn’t field Chris Naggar’s punt. Incidentally, Naggar has been exceptional since coming in for Bujcevski. It’s bizarre and frankly a little disconcerting that a freak injury led to an upgrade for Texas’ special teams. Perhaps you wouldn’t normally think much of it but Texas’ special teams have appeared to lack oversight all year so it makes you wonder.
On that note…
Quick thought no. 4: Texas lost the game on a special teams gaffe
Not over the full game, but on one crucial moment when they committed an offsides penalty that gave Iowa State a first down and allowed them to run down clock before making an easier kick attempt that they could guarantee would be the last play of the game. It was very similar to the ending of Texas’ recent game against Kansas.
Unbelievable mistake by a unit that’s been prone to committing mistakes all year long. Texas has yet to play a game where the offense and defense both played up to their potential and the special teams unit has regularly been a sieve that has erased margin for the team. There needs to be major accountability on special teams in the offseason. I’m sure right now the Texas staff is working insanely hard, particularly Herman, at every level under the pressure of needing to win every week and things are slipping through the cracks. In the offseason Herman needs to figure out why his staff couldn’t handle delegation more effectively and reorganize the entire department.
Quick thought no. 5: Texas just wasted a prime season by a championship caliber quarterback
Oklahoma hasn’t been great this season, they’ve been highly vulnerable. Alex Grinch turns out not to be a magician that can completely overturn years of bad defensive play. Jalen Hurts is still the guy that was benched at Alabama for putting a ceiling on the Tide in big games with his poor play as a passer. The rest of the league is the rest of the league.
Texas had a roster filled with NFL-caliber talent and, for the first time since Colt McCoy took this team to a National Championship game, an elite upperclassman QB. They’ve wasted it. Anytime you fail to compete for a Big 12 title at Texas these days is a bit of a letdown. Failing to compete for one with one of the greatest QBs in program history is an epic failure.
There’s nothing that can happen this season now that will prevent it from forever having a bitter taste. In the biggest game of the season Texas came in with a bad offensive gameplan that couldn’t find anything against Iowa State’s defense. Then they essentially asked Sam Ehlinger to bail them out of it. He did, then they conspired with Iowa State to play keep away and prevent him from being allowed to win the game.
What a sickening display.