No. 13 Iowa State is one game away from playing in the Big 12 Championship Game. That would be a massive achievement for a program that hasn't won a conference title since 1912. The Cyclones needed a late score from star running back Breece Hall and a missed field goal from No. 17 Texas to hold on for the 23-20 win on Friday. Playing from behind for basically the entire game, Iowa State mounted a five-play, 69-yard drive with three minutes remaining and scored a necessary touchdown when the fate of its season was on the line.
But Texas still had time -- and it had quarterback Sam Ehlinger. The senior, who had been effective all game, got the Horns to the Iowa State 36-yard line with 10 seconds remaining. But then Ehlinger took a brutally bad sack at the hands of Cyclones defensive lineman Latrell Bankston for a loss of 4 yards. That forced Texas to take its final timeout to set up Cameron Dicker for a 58-yard field goal, which just inched wide left.
Texas and Iowa State both had a lot to play for with respect to a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game, and the result ended up being an evenly-matched game. Texas had a lot of success offensively going over the top to receiver Brennan Eagles, who had five catches for a career-high 142 yards. Ehlinger was the complementary piece in the running game with 65 yards on the ground and a touchdown -- a combination that Iowa State had a hard time stopping all game long.
But the Cyclones were able to move the ball, too. Quarterback Brock Purdy had 312 yards through the air and favored his tight ends Charlie Kolar (six catches, 131 yards) and Dylan Soehner (five catches, 69 yards). Kolar was particularly effective in the second half in the vertical game. And while Hall didn't have the most dominant day -- he was held under 100 yards for the first time this season -- he still had the go-ahead score and some key runs on the deciding drive.
Bankston was the defensive MVP for the Cyclones as he contributed to some important negative plays and held the line during a game in which Iowa State's three-man front was asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting in getting to the backfield. It didn't always work, but the Cyclones made one more play when it mattered.
With the win, Iowa State keeps steady with a 7-1 record in Big 12 play and will face West Virginia at home on Dec. 5 in the final regular season game. Texas, which drops to 5-3 and 4-3 in conference, would need a lot of help to stay in the conference title game race.
Here's what else we learned from Friday's game.
Disappointing senior day for Ehlinger
It wouldn't have been surprising if Ehlinger -- he being the lifelong Texas Longhorns fan -- had one final hero game in him on senior day. Ehlinger played his ass off, for the most part, with 363 yards of total offense and two touchdowns. He was generally on-point with his downfield passes and a threat running the ball, especially on scrambles. The connection he and Eagles had was unstoppable, and it wasn't nearly a big enough part of the fourth-quarter game plan. Ehlinger played well enough to win, full stop.
But there were two instances that stood out in which Iowa State found an answer to Ehlinger. The first was the aforementioned sack with 10 seconds remaining to make Dicker's field goal even harder. The second was a fourth-and-2 from the Iowa State 13-yard line with eight minutes left in the game. Ehlinger kept the ball on a read and was stopped short of the first-down marker. At 230 pounds, Ehlinger isn't easy to bring down, but the Cyclones found a way. While taking a shotgun snap on such a short down-and-distance will drive some people up a wall, you have to like your odds when Ehlinger is the one carrying the ball. Iowa State made a play.
In that sense, Texas is going to kick itself for missed opportunities to put the game away. The Horns' last four possessions had three turnovers on downs and one punt. That's how you keep Iowa State around.
Iowa State's tight ends came through
The bread and butter for the Cyclones this year has been good defensive play and feed Hall in the running game. But Texas got Iowa State off script early. The Cyclones got into a 10-0 hole and weren't good in the red zone. The first three trips inside the Texas 20-yard line produced nine points, and another trip inside the 25-yard line right before half ended in a missed field goal. That's not typically winning football for Matt Campbell's team.
So credit some second-half adjustments that put a greater emphasis on the tight ends in the passing game. Kolar and Soehner were game-changers, even if they didn't score any touchdowns. They gave Purdy safety outlets and were mismatches against Texas' defense. Iowa State has not been overly reliant on the pass this year, but they were today. Purdy, who has now strung together strong back-to-back performances, was good throwing and running. He might be playing his best football at the right time. The tight ends certainly did today.
A tale of two coaches
Iowa State's win means two things will happen. The first is that Campbell's name will continue to shine brighter as the coaching carousel starts to turn more. Iowa State fans roll their eyes a lot on social media at the mere mention of Campbell potentially leaving for another job -- which, for the record, I'm not saying he will or won't -- but it's a story that comes with the territory. Campbell has done a great job in Ames, and if he's a hot commodity, that's a good problem to have.
For Tom Herman, the loss is only going to further the hot seat chatter. Keep in mind Herman made wholesale staff changes in the offseason -- a move that typically acts as a final line of defense. It's Year 4, and in all likelihood Herman is going to have one Big 12 title game appearance to show for his time in Austin.
Tom Herman asked why he should stay the head coach at Texas after coming up short of Big 12 title game: "That's not for me to decide. I feel like where we have the program right now than where it was when we took over, the future is very bright."— Chuck Carlton (@ChuckCarltonDMN) November 27, 2020
Herman actually made some bold calls against Iowa State. The fake punt didn't work, but it wasn't necessarily a bad call. One Iowa State defender made the key tackle. Otherwise, it was a first down. And the decision to go for it on fourth down with Ehlinger was the right one, too, they just didn't make the play. But so many times those are the types of calls that are considered either genius when they work and terrible when they don't.
The remarkable thing about Texas' predicament is that Herman was the guy in the coaching cycle four years ago. He had ties to the program and the Big 12, coached under Urban Meyer and built up a high ceiling at a good Group of Five program. He checked off all the things Texas should want in someone. For one reason or another, it hasn't worked out. Maybe Texas makes a move, maybe it doesn't, but there's no denying Herman's time in Austin has been a disappointment.