The Texas Longhorns (1-2, 0-0) begin conference play on Thursday night in Ames, Iowa against the Iowa State Cyclones (2-1, 0-0) in a prime-time matchup which will be nationally televised on ESPN. Texas defeated Iowa State in Austin last year 27-6, behind quarterback Shane Buechele’s 296 passing yard performance to snap a 3-game losing streak. In their previous trip to Jack Trice Stadium the Longhorns were shutout by the Cyclones 24-0.
Let’s take a look at what the Longhorns can expect from the Iowa State defense and special teams.
The Cyclones do not have any players that really stand out on the defensive line, but with facing a depleted Texas offensive line, expect defensive coordinator Jon Heacock to throw the kitchen sink at the Longhorns offense. Senior DE J.D. Waggoner is a Dallas native and is in his first year as an entrenched starter. Waggoner has responded with 8 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss to go along with 1.5 sacks. Sophomore DE JaQuan Bailey had a very good freshman campaign in 2016, and has continued to progress in 2017, where he has recorded 7 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Defensive tackles Ray Lima and Vernell Trent will occupy the middle of the line, and both are good at taking on double teams and letting the defenders behind make plays. Lima, a junior college transfer, has 5 tackles this season and .5 tackle for loss. Trent is a senior who has also recorded 5 tackles and has 1 tackle for loss.
This is one of the few remaining games on the schedule that Texas has a decisive advantage in the trenches. There is little doubt that Iowa State will try to confuse and test Denzel Okafor and Tristan Nickelson, but both tackles should be able to hold their own. Iowa State has recorded 8 sacks on the season, but 5 of those came against Akron. Texas will need to try to get the running game back on track and keep the quarterback clean.
The linebacker unit for Iowa State is widely considered the strength of the defense. Marcel Spears Jr. and Willie Harvey are two players who have shined for the Cyclones through the first 3 games. Spears leads the team in tackles with 27, including a whopping 17 tackles against Iowa a few weeks ago. Harvey leads the team in tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2.5), to go along with 19 tackles and an interception. As was mentioned in the offensive preview, former quarterback Joel Lanning will start at middle linebacker. Lanning ranks second on the team in tackles with 26 and is still trying to find a comfort level at his new position.
After watching some of Iowa State’s game against Akron and against Iowa, it was obvious that the Cyclones love to blitz Harvey and Spears through the A and B gaps. Patrick Vahe and Jake McMillon have struggled picking up blitzes at times, and the entire offensive line will have to communicate to make sure there are no free blitzers running through untouched.
The Cyclone secondary struggled mightily in the only true test they’ve had so far, against Iowa, when they allowed 333 yards and 5 touchdowns through the air. Overall though, they are a veteran unit that has quality players. Junior Brian Peavy is viewed as the number 1 corner and was one of the top corners in the Big 12 in 2016. Peavy was a honorable mention All-Big 12 selection and led the team in pass breakups. He has had a solid year so far, totaling 21 tackles to go along with 2 pass breakups and an interception. D’Andre Payne will start at the other corner spot. Payne was named the 2016 newcomer of the year on the Cyclones. The junior has recorded 13 tackles and 2 tackles for loss so far in 2017.
Kamari-Cotton Moya is one of the better safeties in the Big 12. Moya has racked up several accolades during his first 3 years in Ames, including being named Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2014 and being named second team All-Big 12 in 2016. Moya has 11 tackles on the season and an interception. Next to Moya will be Reggie Wilkerson, a senior who is in his first year starting for the Cyclones. Wilkerson has 11 tackles on the year and 1.5 tackles for loss. The Iowa State defense calls their nickel corner position a “star” position, and senior Evrett Edwards has filled that role in 2017. Edwards has been solid in run support, totaling 14 tackles, and will also be asked to cover slot receivers.
Regardless of who starts at QB for the Longhorns, it will be a tough test for the Cyclones secondary. Peavy against Collin Johnson will be a matchup to watch closely, and I will be interested to see if Tim Beck continues to try to utilize Johnson out of the slot at times to create mismatches. A year ago, against many of these same players, Texas struggled to throw the ball in the first half, before finding a rhythm and pulling away in the second half.
Graduate transfer Garrett Owens handles the field goal duties for Iowa State. Owens transferred after a 3 year stint as Oregon State’s kicker, where he connected on 32 of 45 field goals in his career. In 2017, Owens is 4 out of 5 with a long of 40 yards.
Senior punter Colin Johnson has been a Ray Guy Award Watch List member for the past 3 season. Johnson is averaging 44.85 yards per punt and has had 6 punts land inside the 20.
Backup running back Mike Warren handles the majority of the kickoff returns and is averaging 20.75 yards per return with a long of 35 yards. Wide Receiver Trever Ryen handles the punt return duties and is averaging just 4 yards a return on 6 attempts.
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