By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
AUSTIN, Texas — No. 15 Texas battles No. 16 Iowa State Saturday night at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in a key Big 12 contest, with the winner staying alive for a spot in the Big 12 championship game. Here are a few of the things to watch for in the much-anticipated dustup:
PLAYERS TO WATCH
• Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger has become the unquestioned leader of the Longhorns offense. He completed 22 of 34 for 312 yards and four touchdowns in the win over Texas Tech while adding 14 yards on the ground. He continues to build on his school- and Big 12-record 280 consecutive passes without throwing an interception, besting Major Applewhite’s previous school mark of 156 set in 1999.
• Junior wide receiver Collin Johnson was injured and did not play against Texas Tech. With every game Johnson is continuing his role as the go-to receiver that the Longhorns have been seeking. Johnson is the huge, intermediate target that Texas needs to help open up the offense because the 6-foot-6 receiver can go over or through most of the defensive backs that are covering him. He now has 50 receptions for 675 yards and five touchdowns combined in the first 10 games.
• Senior linebacker Gary Johnson, who came to Texas last year after playing in junior college, already has asserted himself as the Longhorns’ do-everything linebacker and be one of the team’s leaders. Johnson registered a team-high nine tackles and two stops for a loss (both of them sacks) in the win as Texas Tech. At 6 feet and 230 pounds, Johnson might be a little undersized to be a constant run stuffer, but he plays bigger than his size and hits as hard as anyone in college football. Johnson will make some plays this season where he will come from the far side of the field to force a turnover.
• No player on the Longhorns has been harder to predict over the past three seasons than cornerback Kris Boyd, and continues his enigmatic play and actions 10 games into the 2018 campaign. Boyd has the skills to be a true shutdown corner, as long as he can keep his emotions in check. At 6-foot and 195 pounds, he has the size to take on and stop most of the receivers that will line up across from him. Boyd had eight tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the win over Texas Tech. He has 44 stops, a sack, 1-½ tackles for a loss, an interception, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble and 13 pass breakups for the season.
SERIES HISTORY: Texas and Iowa State meet as ranked foes Saturday night. The only other time they both have been ranked in their previous 15 meetings was in 2002, when the No. 7/7 Longhorns beat the No. 17/18 Cyclones, 21-10, in Austin. UT is 13-2 all-time against Iowa State, including a mark of 7-1 in games played in Austin. The Longhorns have won two straight over Iowa State, including last season's 17-7 victory in Ames.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “So these guys realize, I think, more than the young guys, how different this team is compared to teams of the past, teams that they've been associated with. They know the potential of this team, and I think they're hell-bent on making sure that this team achieves its potential.” – Texas coach Tom Herman, about his 26 seniors.
KEY MATCHUP: The Texas passing attack against Iowa State’s bend-but-don’t-break defense. The Cyclones are the Big 12’s best defense for a reason: they don’t give up a lot of big plays. Iowa State debuted its version of the “lightning” defense last year against Texas and kept the game to a manageable level, losing 17-7. The Longhorns have to stay patient against Iowa State to have success: take the 4-yard run, get the quarterback outside of the pocket, throw passes to the check-down receiver. Basically take what the Cyclones will give them and be happy with a low-scoring game.
Wide receiver Collin Johnson has the size (6-foot-6, 215 pounds), athleticism and speed that the NFL loves, but he needs to be more aggressive. Herman has ordered his quarterbacks to go to the go-route to Johnson any and every time he draws single coverage, and that strategy worked for a 22-yard touchdown in the loss to Maryland. He now has 50 catches for 675 yards and five touchdowns combined in the first 10 games.
• Ehlinger has now thrown 280 consecutive passes without an interception, surpassing Applewhite’s school record of 156 in 1999 and Big 12 mark of 273 as set by former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. He is on the watch list for the 2018 Manning Award.
• Cornerback Davante Davis had an MRI on his knee and ankle after he suffered a bone bruise on his knee and strain of a muscle in his ankle in the win over Texas Tech. He is expected to be ready to play Saturday, as is safety Caden Sterns, who suffered a head injury against the Red Raiders.
• Collin Johnson missed the Texas Tech game with a knee injury but has had a good week and will be a game-time decision to play Saturday. Safety Brandon Jones (ankle) will also be evaluated before the game but is likely to see the field.
• Defensive back Josh Thompson, on the other hand, was ruled out with his ankle injury.
• The Big 12 Conference announced Monday that Texas wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, defensive back Davante Davis and placekicker Cameron Dicker as its Players of the Week for their efforts in Saturday’s win at Texas Tech. The honor was the first of the season for both Humphrey and Davis, while Dicker also earned the recognition following the AT&T Red River Showdown earlier this season.
• Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte announced that the Longhorns will play a home-and-home series with Southeastern Conference power Georgia in 2028 and 2029,. Texas is scheduled to host the Bulldogs Sept. 2, 2028 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and will travel to Sanford Stadium in Athens to play Georgia Sept. 1, 2029.
• UT has had five turnover-free games so far in 2018 (TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech).
AND ON IOWA STATE:
• As good as Texas has been, the Cyclones have been every bit as impressive, reeling off five straight wins, including a 28-14 home victory over Baylor last week, after a 1-3 start to their campaign.
• Iowa State (6-3 overall, 5-2 in games against Big 12 schools) has had success when it sticks to its details on defense. The Cyclones debuted their bend-but-don’t break, dime-style (six defensive backs) defense against Texas in a 17-7 loss in Ames last season and it’s the rock that Iowa State stands on.
• Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy has not been a flash in the pan. Through five games, the true freshman quarterback has completed 83 of his 121 attempts for 1,315 yards, 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also is Iowa State’s second-leading rusher, running the ball 67 times for 252 yard
• Running back David Montgomery is out for the first half against Texas because he threw a punch during a second-half melee with Baylor last week. Redshirt freshman Johnnie Lang and redshirt sophomore Kene Nwangwu are the two likely replacements while Montgomery sits for the first half.
• Wide receiver Hakeem Butler was left off the list of semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top receiver. Butler leads the nation in yards per reception with 22.66 yards per reception, and has caught 36 passes for 816 yards and eight touchdowns.
• Iowa State cornerback Datrone Young injured his shoulder in the Cyclones’ game against Kansas and missed last week’s game against Baylor. He will be a game-time decision against the Longhorns.
• For the first time in school history, Iowa State has rattled off five straight conference victories in a single season. ISU’s 5-2 league mark equals its best start to a conference season through seven games (1977) and it ties the school record for most conference wins in a season, matching the standard set in 1977 (5-2), 2000 (5-3), 2017 (5-4) and 2018 (5-2).
• The Iowa State defense has been stellar in 2018, holding eight opponents to below their season scoring averages. The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in total defense at 344.4 yards per game (32nd nationally) and scoring defense at 20.4 points per game (22nd nationally). ISU is limiting its opponents to an average of 12.6 points below its season scoring averages.
• ISU has allowed just five offensive touchdowns in its last four games and its actual season scoring defense total is 17.3 (opponents have scored four non-offensive touchdowns). ISU also leads the Big 12 in rushing defense, allowing an average of 109.4 yards per game.