Iowa State quarterback Rocco Becht (3) scrambles to avoid Texas Longhorns defensive linemen during the game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 8, 2023 in Ames, Iowa. © Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — The stage couldn’t have looked any better or brighter. A sellout crowd. A top-seven opponent in soon-to-be SEC-bound Texas. A prime opportunity to send Iowa State’s seniors out as winners in their final home game.
But assemble all of those potential elements for an upset and they’re overshadowed by one stark reality: the Cyclones simply failed to execute crisply enough to prevent a 26-16 loss to the No. 7 Longhorns Saturday night under the lights at Jack Trice Stadium.
“We don’t have a damn thing to be embarrassed about,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said after his team fell to 6-5 overall and 5-3 in Big 12 play. “And I’ll be really honest with you: I’m really excited to get back with this football team and at the end of the day, we’ll let the end of the football season define where we’re at and certainly where we’ve come from. There’s a lot of work to do, but I’m proud of our kids.”
The Cyclones couldn’t run the ball effectively, eking out a mere nine yards on the ground — their lowest total in a game since a 34-14 loss to Colorado (minus-6 yards rushing) in 2010. They fell behind 13-3 with 5:53 remaining in the third quarter after Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers engineered a nine-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that ended in a 23-yard pass to Jordan Whittington.
So the outlook appeared bleak, but ISU responded. The Cyclones’ redshirt freshman quarterback, Rocco Becht, drove his team 83 yards on seven plays to seemingly narrow the deficit to three points on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Eli Sanders, but kicker Chase Contreraz’s extra point was blocked and returned for two points. Texas (10-1, 7-1) led 15-9 instead of 13-10 and ISU would trail by at least seven points the remainder of the game.
“That’s a really good Texas team,” Campbell said. “We had our opportunities. I think I talked (last week) about how we had to execute and there were times we did, but we just didn’t do it consistently enough in all three phases of football. At the end of the day, to beat that football team, you’re gonna have to have great execution.”
At times, as Campbell noted, the Cyclones played with that detail-and-precision-based edge. At critical junctures, they didn’t. That’s ISU’s time-worn formula for a narrow defeat and Texas made sure it would hold true on senior night.
Case in point: Becht hit senior tight end Easton Dean over the middle for a 66-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-one play to make the score 23-16 with 12:44 remaining. But on the previous drive, while still trailing by just six, at 15-9, Becht threw an interception at the Longhorns’ 43-yard line that set up Ewers’ second touchdown pass — a 31-yard connection with backup tight end Gunnar Helm.
“We were in that game and I felt like a big part for the momentum change kind of (stemmed from) when the defense got a stop, I threw that pick that first play of the drive,” said Becht. who completed 24 of 32 passes for 323 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. “That really kind of hurt us and probably (affected) the defense’s momentum. So I put them in a bad spot and I can’t do that. I’ve got to execute better but I’ll watch film and I’ll get better from that play.”
Becht’s pair of end-zone throws allowed him to set the Cyclones’ freshman record for touchdown passes in a season at 17. He broke Brock Purdy’s record of 16 — and will play in at least two more games this season, beginning with next Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Kansas State.
“We’ve still got one more regular-season game and a bowl game, and for the seniors on this team, we want to (send) them out in a good way, which is flushing this and getting ready for next week against K-State, and putting on a show for them,” Becht said. “hen we get a huge break off (from games) until that bowl game, so we want to go 2-0 these next two games. That’s our goal right now and that’s all we’re focused on.”
Bright spots existed Saturday amid the scoreboard-framed angst. The defense held Texas to its lowest-scoring output this season. The Cyclones tallied four sacks, with two coming from defensive end Joey Petersen, who entered the game with 1.5 career quarterback takedowns. Junior wide receiver Jayden Higgins caught a game-high seven passes for 104 yards. But none of those positive stats could alter the final result — a disappointing series-ending setback to the Longhorns, who clinched a berth in the Big 12 title game.
“We were really just a hair off and you can’t be against a team like Texas,” Petersen said. “I just feel at times we weren’t on precision like we should be.”