It has been 20 days since the Texas football team has taken the field, and it does not seem like there is a better game in which to return from a brief hiatus than a matchup against the team currently sitting atop the Big 12 standings: Iowa State.
It is also the only regular season contest Texas will play this season that is set to kick off on a weekday. This Friday morning duel has all the looks of a classic Thanksgiving weekend battle. High-powered offenses? Check. Hard-nosed defenses? You bet. And postseason implications? Don't even start. There is more to this contest than meets the eye, and with so much to look out for, it is hard to cover it all. Here are three storylines to keep an eye on as the Cyclones challenge the Longhorns in UT's final home game of the season.
Breece Hall against the Texas defense
It is safe to say that Texas has not yet faced a running back like Iowa State's Breece Hall this season, and probably will not for the rest of 2020. The ISU sophomore is the best back in the Big 12, statistically, leading the nation in rushing yards with 1,169, and ranking second in the country in rushing touchdowns with 15. Few defenses have been able to stop him.
Of course, the Cyclones have other weapons on offense, such as quarterback Brock Purdy, but Hall is the centerpiece. One play the Cyclones especially like to run is a zone read, in which Purdy decides whether to hand the ball to Hall, or look downfield for a pass based on the defensive set. The threat of Hall getting the handoff keeps opponents too focused on the run game, as Purdy then finds a man open downfield. That happened multiple times as Iowa State trounced Kansas State, 45-0, last Saturday. His speed, agility and ability to find running room will keep the Texas defense on their toes throughout the game.
The best quarterback matchup in the Big 12?
Purdy has established himself as one of the league's best passers this season. His uncanny accuracy, and ability to throw the deep ball has made Iowa State's offense one of the Big 12's most efficient. According to Berry Tramel, a sportswriter for The Oklahoman, who compiles Big 12 offensive efficiency ratings each week, Iowa State is second at .438. Texas is third at .333. Yes, Iowa State has Hall, and Texas has a slew of talented backs, but the quarterback plays a tremendous role in that success.
For Texas, Sam Ehlinger has led with the poise expected out of a senior, and is currently tied for first in the conference in passing touchdowns (22). He is third in the Big 12 in rushing touchdowns as well, with seven. In other words, right now, it seems Ehlinger is serving as UT's quarterback and primary running thread. Friday's quarterback matchup is set to be one of the best in the conference, with two signal-callers, both near the top of the stat categories, going at it. It will be Ehlinger's final home game.
"He’s done a lot of things in his four years here that haven’t been done around here in a decade," said Texas head coach Tom Herman of Ehlinger.
Big 12 championship hopes
In this battle of top-25 teams, Big 12 championship games hopes will be on the line. After Friday's contest, Texas has two games left, Iowa State has one, and with six teams in the conference boasting at least four wins, winning this game is critical in each team's fight to finish in the top two.
A loss would likely set Texas outside the chase for a spot in the Big 12's championship game. The road to the Big 12 championship is not an easy one, but as Herman noted in his weekly press conference Monday, Texas is one of the few teams in the country that controls its own destiny. Iowa State can say the same. With one conference loss, and ranked No. 13 in the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings, the Cyclones are aiming to win their first Big 12 title, and better yet, reach a New Year's day bowl this season.
The game marks the beginning of the homestretch, a true challenge to see which team is the best of the best and who deserves a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.