The Texas Longhorns had one of the worst defenses of any AQ-conference team in 2012, giving up 29.2 points per game. In its mid-November contest against Texas in Austin, Iowa State must have missed the memo.
The Cyclones, in the second-to-last start of Steele Jantz's career, managed seven points and amassed 277 total yards.
Texas' defense is nearly as bad this season. After yielding a school-record 550 rushing yards to BYU, head coach Mack Brown fired coordinator Manny Diaz and brought in old pal Greg Robinson, the Longhorns' coordinator in 2004. With only a few days to prepare, Robinson's unit surrendered 44 points in a home loss to Ole Miss. The next week brought far better results, however, with the Longhorns holding Kansas State to 21 points and 115 yards rushing in a much-needed win.
"The Ole Miss game [was] against a very talented offense with very talented players and the transition of a new staff," ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. "That's hard. Terminology, coaching, calls. You wash that game. You look more at Kansas State and look at the emotion, passion they played with. Got a better feel for what that defense is capable of."
One of the first thing Robinson did upon arriving in Austin three weeks ago was tweaking Diaz's blitz-based schemes, which were cool on paper but in actuality resulted in busted coverages, shoddy gap responsibility and missed tackles galore, the byproduct of poor angles and poor positioning. Robinson has taken his talent — there is plenty of it — and streamlined everything.
"He's really just tried to say, Here, let's get a gameplan in place and let's play that gameplan," Cyclones offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. "Playing to the gameplan. That makes you a little nervous as an offensive coordinator because now you've got to decide in just two examples what is the true makeup of Greg Robinson going to be. We'll need to handle whatever he throws at us."
Here's an example: With more time to prepare during Kansas State week, Robinson adjusted from a Cover 2 against Ole Miss to more Cover 3 looks versus the Wildcats. By putting safety Mykkele Thompson in the box, the Longhorns were better equipped to defend the run. Thompson has his limitations in deep space and in coverage, and he's not subpar tackler, but he did a surprisingly good job of reading particular plays.
Texas rallied to the football better against Kansas State, leaving little room for either quarterback or tailback John Hubert to run. As a sacrifice to having eight men in the box, the Longhorns allowed wideout Tyler Lockett to have a huge game in single coverage against corners Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom. This is something Messingham will look at, but he doesn't have a receiver who is as seasoned a route runner with as much straight-line speed as Lockett.
What Messingham must do is make sure he's giving players opportunities to pick up quick, easy chunks of yardage. Slow-developing run plays — counters and draws — will fail against the athletic Longhorns. Run plays to the boundary will be drive killers.
Iowa State's game against Tulsa on Thursday was a good start, when Messingham's offense rolled up the rushing yards out of the pistol formation. Aaron Wimberly, the new feature back, did a heady job picking his running lanes. Messingham needs to get Wimberly at least 20 touches Thursday night, with more than half of them coming out of the pistol formation, which allows Wimberly to get a head of steam going.
"We had good schemes [against Tulsa]," Wimberly said. "With the pistol I can actually read the defenses more quickly because I'm in the backfield so that gives me good time."
Rhoads describes Wimberly as a "slashing" runner, which means he's best planting a foot and zooming through whichever hole he favors. While Shontrelle Johnson's herky-jerky stuff could be a nice changeup Thursday night, the Cyclones understand they must pick up the gimme yards while they can against a unit that won't be beat laterally.
"[Wimberly's] not going to give you three or four quick moves in a small space," quarterback Sam Richardson said. "It's just one move and he's out of there. That's what makes him so effective. He's not wasting time trying to juke someone, it's just making a quick move. He's just so fast and accelerates real well."
In Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed, the Longhorns have the best pair of defensive ends in the conference. Jeffcoat will oftentimes operate standing up before stunting inside, usually paired with an outside 'backer slamming the C-gap (a quick, major aside: WLB Jordan Hicks is out for the season. He's the team's best tackler in space and periodically the running mate in the above Jeffcoat stunt).
Iowa State can expect pressure from the outsides Thursday, as well as up the middle. Texas' starting tackles, Chris Whaley and Malcom Brown, are both exceptionally quick, Whaley being a former running back, joining Henry Melton and Lamarr Houston as Longhorns to successfully make that odd transition.
"Very, very athletic," Messingham said. "Extremely fast. Big inside due to their two DTs. Extremely explosive for 300-plus pound guys."
The best remedy for a disruptive blitz is a heavy dosage of screen passes. Richardson was too high on many of those throws Thursday night, preventing his receivers from gaining substantial yards after the catch, but it's a staple of Messingham's offense the Cyclones will tap into. It will help that Texas' corners have not proven themselves as solid tacklers.
Against Tulsa, Wimberly picked up a big run out of the shotgun behind a pulling Tom Farniok and a downfield block. Standard stuff, standard play. That's not what why we're talking about it, though. Richardson faked the bubble screen to Justin Coleman after handing the ball off. Rather than this being a standard keep-'em-honest fake, the inclination is to assume this is an option on a packaged play — give, keep, throw — because of only one downfield blocker.
Against a defense on its second coordinator in five games, without its star outside linebacker, Iowa State ought to have success pushing the tempo and mixing the ball around on the exact same look.
"The running game works well because we throw those little quick screens; when the running game works well you can take shots because players are playing up," Richardson said. "It's just a big circle. Everything works for everything else."
Richardson has upgraded his ankle from 85-90 percent to something still less than 100, remaining hopeful he'll reach full health sometime this season. He's gained 37 yards rushing the last two games since spraining his right ankle in the season-opener, that number representing his fewest in any two-game stretch of his career.
"Sam's still not at full strength, if he was he would have had a couple of those scrambles," running back Jeff Woody said. "If he's full strength you can add another 50 or so rushing yards to that."
The timing's a shame for Iowa State. Running quarterbacks have been the folly for the Longhorns the last two years — they're thankful they'll never have to play Johnny Manziel — and never was that more clear than against BYU, when Taysom Hill gained 259 yards on 17 carries with three touchdowns.
"I saw the highlights," Richardson said. "The quarterback looked like a running back."
Texas was unable to figure out BYU's gun-option stuff; tailback Jamaal Williams had 182 yards. Hill made the correct read just about every time. The Longhorns were too eager to crash playside and Steve Edmond, the linebacker responsible for the outside gap, was awful in containment. Edmond knew it was coming, knew he'd be purposefully unblocked and instead of trusting his teammates he was sucked too far up time and time again. In the below play art, Edmond (No. 33) gets duped. Had he chopped his feet right at the LOS, he's likely making that play. Instead he lets Hill right past him and, well, it's no secret how Texas' secondary is comprised of poor tacklers.
Looking for more ways to annihilate the Longhorns on the ground? Why, you've come to the right place. Down below is another of Hill's touchdowns, where he very simply sees nothing he likes in zone coverage and recognizes Texas' defensive line is so engaged in its blocks he can slip by. It wouldn't have been successful had Edmond, responsible for the outlined box, not been caught reading Hill's eyes. Too late. I've told anyone who'll listen: It does not benefit the Cyclones that Edmond is out the first half of this week's game after being ejected for targeting against Kansas State.
Once more, with panache. Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters recognizes that Texas' defensive tackles are stuck going nowhere and that ends Jeffcoat and Shiro Davis have been pushed outside the tackle box. Easy first down.
Last season against the Longhorns, Jantz made plays in the option and in improv situations, but there wasn't enough consistency in any area of the offense for it to prove substantial.
The Longhorns have improved defensively since the BYU game, as Robinson's simplified the playbook and stressed gap containment. But there's no new evidence that suggests they can't be had by a rushing quarterback in the right scheme. Kansas State ran too much of 2012's slow-developing stuff, which worked with Collin Klein but with few others.
"Factoring in the quarterback, very much a component we've got to utilize," Rhoads said.
After the first round of film study, Richardson notes the Longhorns are "more sound." But this is a game he can win with his feet, if only his ankle will let him.