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This Saturday night, Iowa State has its biggest football game in our lifetimes to this point.
How's that for overheated hype? So let's tone it down and simply say the Cyclones' game at Texas Saturday is their most-meaningful game in our lifetimes to this point?
Still dialed too high? Well, tell me the last time Iowa State (5-2 in the Big 12) won six conference games in a season. (Never.) Tell me the last time ISU reached the Big 12 title game. (Never.)
Beat Texas in Austin, and the Cyclones will have a chance — a chance — to play in the Big 12 championship game in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 1. If, that is, they go on to beat Kansas State in Ames the following Saturday.
That we're this deep into a block of text in November detailing what ISU needs to do to play in its conference's title game tells you how things have changed near the banks of the sweetly flowing South Skunk River in Story County.
Iowa State has a five-game winning streak, folks. That's five Big 12 teams knocked down in succession, and by an average of 13.8 points. Included was a 30-14 win over West Virginia.
Unless it loses Saturday afternoon at Oklahoma State, that West Virginia team will suddenly become ISU's Public Enemy No. 1 should the Cyclones happen to beat the Longhorns Saturday.
The top two teams in the Big 12's regular season advance to the league's championship contest. Oklahoma and West Virginia are tied for first at 6-1. Iowa State and Texas are 5-2. After playing at Oklahoma State (tough), the Mountaineers host Oklahoma on Black Friday (tougher). The Sooners won't lack motivation, since they're trying to return to the College Football Playoff.
If ISU and West Virginia tie for second at 7-2 and Oklahoma is 8-1, the Cyclones go to Greater Dallas to play the Sooners for the league crown because they beat West Virginia. If the Mountaineers go 8-1 and Oklahoma is 7-2 with ISU, the Sooners have the tiebreaker by virtue of their 37-27 win at Ames back on Sept. 15.
First things first. Can Iowa State win at Texas?
Sure, as long as the Cyclones' defense is its normally imposing self instead of the one that allowed 505 yards in ISU's 28-14 win over surly Baylor Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
Texas has a problem. It's called defense. It has allowed 1,675 yards and 111 points over its last three games, a 38-35 loss at Oklahoma State, a 42-41 home defeat to West Virginia, and a 41-34 win at Texas Tech.
The Longhorns may be running on the fumes of fumes after that stretch. West Virginia scored a touchdown with 33 seconds left and then hit on a 2-point conversion to beat the Horns. Texas blew all of a 34-17 lead in the fourth quarter at Texas Tech, then scored with 22 seconds left for the win.
Nonetheless, this thing in Austin Saturday will be hard for the Cyclones. Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger is first-rate. His offense got the ball at the Texas 25 Saturday with 1:45 left after Texas Tech tied the game. Ehlinger made plays with his feet and arm, topped by the game-winning, 29-yard TD throw to Lil'Jordan Humphrey.
Ehlinger has 16 touchdown passes and hasn't thrown an interception since the season's first game.
But Iowa State is pretty good, too. It leads the Big 12 in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing efficiency defense and total defense. Oh, and red zone defense. Ten times this season, opponents have gotten inside the ISU 20 only to get blanked.
The Cyclones' quarterback, freshman Brock Purdy, has yet to experience losing as a starter and has 12 TD passes to just two picks.
For the chance to reach Arlington, the Cyclones must go through Austin. This is the 18th-ranked Cyclones against the 14th-ranked Longhorns in the middle of November. The stakes are high.
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