With a 31-22 statement win over the Red Raiders, Mack Brown's Longhorns established their identity for the season. It's not the physical, dominating identity fans hoped for, but it is one that has generated important victories.
It's still very much the case that the offense depends on David Ash, however the emergence of skill players around him provides the offense with means of helping him attack every part of the field. Teams cannot sit on the basic Power-O and Inside Zone runs that form the basis of the Texas offense or risk dying a quick death on the perimeter against burners like Daje Johnson and DJ Monroe, or being hit over the top by Mike "Magic" Davis for play-action TD strikes.
Perhaps most importantly, teams that don't sit on Texas downhill running game now have to deal with emerging superstar Jonathan Gray, whose team-leading 533 rushing yards speak to his swift arrival on the college football landscape. Gray's spectacular vision and cuts make him a potent every down player while his breakaway speed makes it essential that opposing defenses keep him corralled.
Meanwhile the development of young safeties on the defense is allowing the team to bring back the 2011 2-deep defenses that force teams to maintain drives without big plays. Then, when they reach the Red Zone they have to face Texas' lockdown man coverage and exotic blitz packages. It's not an ambitious defensive gameplan, but it is effective.
Even without Jeffcoat in the lineup, you do not want to be a spread passing team without a powerful inside running game against this Texas defense. Their ability now to lock down receivers with defensive backs Kenny Vaccaro, Carrington Byndom, and Quandre Diggs while bringing a diverse pass-rush led by future NFL draft pick Alex Okafor is a nightmare for a team in an obvious passing situation.
Of course, this team still has deep flaws that will become evident before the season has played out. While the offensive line has become an above average unit, they are not a group that can impose their will on a solid defensive front unless it has already been softened by three quarters of successful offensive football initiated by Ash. Texas is very vulnerable to a team with size and experience at defensive end that could allow them to play the Longhorn run game honestly without over committing safeties.
Meanwhile the defense has not proven they can stop a legitimate rushing game when there's also the threat of a pass. Offensive balance is a defense's greatest enemy but it only takes a modicum of balance to get Texas' defensive backs bailing on passing assignments while trying to cover for the team's dreadful run defense.
Because of these flaws, Iowa State challenges the established 2012 Longhorn identity in a few key areas:
1). Toughness: In addition to being a physical team geared around strong tackling and running the ball, Iowa State has a mental toughness that Mack Brown's teams have rarely demonstrated. If they get caught in a brawl with the Cyclones will their struggling linebackers and finesse offensive strategies still be throwing counter punches in the 4th quarter?
2). Running game: Texas had very mixed results the last time they faced a run-first offense (Kansas) and Iowa State could play that to their advantage if they can sustain drives with the running game and shorten the contest before Texas' offense is firing on all cylinders.
3). Disciplined defense: This is the 2nd best defense Texas has faced this year, even with star Cyclone Linebacker Jake Knott out for the season. They tackle well, they stay in position to deny big plays, and they still have probably the best linebacker the Longhorns has faced this year in AJ Klein.
Unfortunately for the Cyclones, they are small and unathletic on the perimeter with speedy defensive ends that are not built to stand up a dangerous edge attack like Texas brings. They are small at corner as well, and they may not hold up if Texas OC Harsin can force them to find the ball and make tackles while maintaining deep responsibilities.
However, even with the matchup advantages, it's unlikely that Texas will be able to pour on offensive points unless the Iowa State offense commits turnovers.
Turnovers have indeed been key throughout Iowa State's season and have limited their potential far more than the athletic limitations of their roster. Quarterback Steele Jantz often throws interceptions while trying to make something happen for an offense devoid of big play threats.
If Dallas Cowboys fans can close their eyes and picture one of Tony Romo's weaker games minus 2/3 of his heroics that made the game interesting in the first place, they'll have a fairly accurate view of the Cyclone signal caller.
Texas has a diverse and explosive offense that will be able to find points against the Iowa State defense. If Steele Jantz feels that pressure and begins to throw interceptions against the Texas secondary, he could put the Cyclones in a deep hole that they won't be able to surmount.
But if Iowa State can hang around, keep pounding away with the running game, and generate turnovers on defense we've seen what they are capable of doing.
I think this Texas team is strong, confident, and motivated enough to defeat an overmatched Iowa State home at DKR in memorial of the late Longhorn legend and preserve their pride and season heading into Thanksgiving. Anything less would be a sad contrast to the teams that Royal fielded at Texas for 20 seasons.