This is perhaps already the most unpredictable season in the Big XII since 2014, if not ever. Sure, TCU, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State are all favorites over the rest of the field. But when TCU can rebound from a 21-point walloping at the hands of Oklahoma State and wallop another top-10 team by the same margin while Oklahoma State takes everything they can handle from a fearless Iowa State, how can you know what's going to happen one week to the next? When a 1-4 West Virginia knocks off Kansas State after the Wildcats had taken impressive Cal and Texas Tech teams to overtime while the Texas team that previously beat West Virginia loses at home to a Kansas team that just lost to West Virginia, how can you even begin to tell who's up and who's down? The nation's most exciting conference is as close to a ten-deep league as it's ever been, and that just makes it all the more compelling to watch. So let's talk about the games.
West Virginia 27, Kansas State 16
Halftime Speech: The first half of this game wasn't much to write home about. Neither offense was able to keep the ball moving downfield on a drive-to-drive basis, and after both teams exchanged short field goals to start the game neither was able to put anything else up on the board for the remainder of the half. When both teams came out of the locker rooms, the tone and tenor of the game changed entirely. Suddenly, Mike Freeman was finding running lanes and Martin Lake was firing darts to Corey Easley and Etena Catingub. Suddenly, Shane Kruse was connecting more often than not with his receivers. But only West Virginia was able to maintain their newfound offensive consistency through the end of the game. Martin Lake finished with 240 yards on 18-of-28 passing, accounted for two of the team's three touchdowns, and didn't turn it over as West Virginia scored 24 points after the half--their highest second-half scoring total since the 2020 Big XII Championship Game.
Kings of Kansas: West Virginia's second win of the season also gives the Mountaineers their second straight sweep of the Kansas schools, holding them to an average of 18.0 points per game in the process. This two-game streak is highlighted by what they've been able to do up front on defense. In both games, the trio of Elvis Cornejo, Riley Reardon, and Dominic Acuna each had at least a partial sack. They've combined for 6.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss against the run, and two fumbles forced--and they're the tiniest bit unlucky that neither fumble became a turnover. It's not just a case of Acuna opening things up for everyone else because this has consistently been a very good defensive line. But it does allow West Virginia to be comfortable only rushing four, which helps them out covering downfield.
Kruse-ing Into Rocky Waters: A week after giving up 4 touchdowns (and collecting 2 interceptions) against Christian Graham, West Virginia was able to keep Kansas State's passing game largely in check. Shane Kruse came back down to earth a bit after posting an average of 318.8 yards per game with 10 touchdowns to 2 interceptions in his first four times out. This game was a reminder that Kruse is indeed a redshirt freshman who will indeed sometimes have freshman moments. He finished the game just 22-of-41 for 206 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception. He had less of a run game to rely on as Jaiden Givens only carried the ball for 30 yards on 9 rushes. Givens was actually more effective as a receiver, catching 3 passes for 42 yards and a touchdown. Whether Givens or Gabriel Vinson is in the starting lineup, this offense is going to be pass-first, pass-second, pass-third most of the time, and they can count on Kruse to be better than this most of the time.
Next Up: Kansas State falls to 2-3 (0-2) and is now in must-win mode with only four games remaining against teams not ranked in the top 10. Barring a bigger shocker than the horrific 2018 team's win over Houston, they'll need to go on the road to beat an enigmatic Baylor next week. West Virginia improves to 2-4 (2-1) and gets a bye before an entirely different challenge at home against Texas Tech.
Kansas 30, Texas 24 (OT)
Quarterbacks in the Clutch: The last time Christian Graham met Sam Milner, the result wasn't pretty for either of them: they combined to complete 27-of-48 passes for 293 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions in a ballgame that ended 16-10. This time, Graham alone exceeded all of those totals (except for the interception count), and Milner was no slouch himself. The Frog-turned-Longhorn threw for 242 yards and 2 scores, but the biggest play of the ballgame was an option keeper on 1st-and-goal to score a rushing touchdown and pull Texas within 24-22 with just three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter--then convert for two points on a designed quarterback draw to tie the ballgame up. But for every play by Sam Milner, Christian Graham had an answer. He finished with 328 yards and 3 touchdowns on 30-of-52 passing. After Texas failed to convert in the top half of the first overtime, Graham was not about to let this game come down to Kansas's own kicker. He worked between Mark Poole (9 for 153 yards, 1 TD) and Cameron Bowers (8 for 75 yards, 1 TD), and on 3rd-and-goal he found runningback Bryce Dubose sitting in the flat wide open for the game-winning touchdown. It was the fourth time in Graham's career that Kansas has gone to overtime. He has won all four of those games.
Strength Up Front: Texas turned what could have been a liability into a strength this season with their play up front, and Kansas turned to a player who's been quiet this year to reassert their own strength at the line. Zion Gaines and Thomas Sanders tore up the middle-to-right side of the Kansas offensive line with three combined sacks between the two of them. Gaines also wrestled Andre Black down behind the line for a loss and forced a fumble from Christian Graham. They hit hard, but so did Kansas. Shaq Stewart peanut-punched a ball out of Shaq Dixon's grasp, though Shaun Lyles fell on it before Kansas could recover. Jamari Callahan made his season statsheet debut in a big way, recording career sack number 23.5 to pass Hudson Adam and Anthony Ortiz for second place on the conference career leaderboard and recording three tackles for loss against the run. True freshman Eddy Cuevas also had a sack and a tackle for loss. But the key player was middle linebacker Evander Lawton, who had a team-high 7 tackles, intercepted a pass from Sam Milner, and jarred a fumble loose from Dontae Alford for a turnover. It's his first fumble forced since the Texas game to open last season.
Here's the Kicker: When Kansas drove the field in overtime, they didn't want to rely on kicker Otto Hahn. They'd just seen an object lesson in why not when Texas had the ball. After missing a crucial field goal in the loss to TCU and another one in the loss to Iowa State in his only two field goal opportunities of the season so far, Devin Bollinger found himself benched. He was on thin ice due to a shaky 2022 season, but Iowa State was the last straw for the senior. Redshirt freshman Christopher Bliss was named the starter, and on his very first kick of the game he...missed the extra point after Texas's first-quarter touchdown. That ultimately ended up being the reason the Longhorns needed Milner's clutch two-point conversion, so at least that was forgiven. Bliss also knocked home an easy 30-yarder in the third quarter. He'd get another chance in overtime to give Texas the lead from 39 yards out--but he pulled the kick wide left to give Kansas the chance to win with any score. And the rest was history.
Next Up: Texas drops to 2-3 (1-3) but should be able to get back to .500 as massive favorites against Liberty. Kansas improves to 2-3 (1-2) and--still in must-win territory--will take on Texas Tech at home next.
#14/#7 TCU 38, #8/#6 Duke 17
Cooking with Fire: At some point in between the loss to Oklahoma State and TCU's first possession against Duke, the light bulb switched on in Taylor Cook's head. He played the game that his fans and coaches always believed he was capable of, and the game that should put the rest of the country back on notice. Not only that, but Cook arguably had the best single-game passing performance ever by a TCU quarterback when accounting for production, efficiency, and opponent. He finished 22-of-31 for 340 yards and 3 touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating of 195.0 is "only" the 9th-best in school history--but the eight that were better were all on fewer pass attempts and produced 301 yards or fewer. And sure, his 340 yards "only" rank 4th in school history--but Felix Luck's two more productive performances were on 50 or more attempts including his 421-yard game against a West Virginia defense that was at the time much worse than Duke's defense was, and Nathan Burden's 349-yard game came with one touchdown and one interception. Cook is capable of doing it all, he was able to get Finn Nielsen and Miguel Aguilera heavily involved, and this TCU offense finally has the passing dimension it needed this year.
His Position is Scorer: Meanwhile, Griffin McHanna hasn't let up on the do-everything train. He caught one of Cook's three touchdown passes, collecting 64 yards receiving on 3 catches. He carried the ball 5 times for 45 yards and a touchdown. He even ran a punt all the way back to the house to become the first player in Big XII history to score a touchdown via rush, via reception, and via special teams in the same season, let alone in the same game. Oklahoma State's Raheem Robinson and Baylor's Jayden Tinsley are the only other Big XII players to score in those three ways in a college career. If McHanna really wants to shoot for the stars, he'll need a kick return touchdown and a passing touchdown to match Robinson in scoring diversity--and maybe even a defensive touchdown, a safety, or a field goal to pass him.
A Plague of Frogs: But not to be lost in TCU's offensive explosion was the way they swarmed on defense. With a new-look front, the unit looked completely rejuvenated. They negated Christian Collins and sharply limited Bryce Thompson, who finished with 166 total yards, 2 total touchdowns, and 2 turnovers. Patrick Ross had an interception and a pass breakup, but often the ball just never got that far because Richard Farrell (7 tackles, 2 TFL, 1.0 sack) was flying off the edge, Kwon Shaw (3 tackles, 1 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF) was eating up the middle, and Jefferson Cruz (1 tackle, 0.5 sack, 1 FR) was plugging up any gaps that developed. Just as was the case with the offense, TCU's defense finally looked like exactly what it was supposed to look like--and not a moment too soon.
Next Up: With the most impressive win of the week in the nation's most exciting conference, TCU vaults to 4-1. Two of the biggest tests of the season rewards them with yet another playoff-level matchup, this time taking on #1 Oklahoma. Their win over Duke means that their playoff bid still has life to it, and it means that a loss to Oklahoma won't necessarily end their chances but will still be a serious blow. However, the win against Duke does mean that a second straight high-level win would put them back in the driver's seat to be back in the field of eight.
#4/#2 Oklahoma State 20, Iowa State 14
Building Bridges: Oklahoma State's offense just wasn't finding much purchase against an Iowa State defense that came into this matchup allowing just 17.6 points per game. Amral Brown had a respectable--but not Amral Brown-esque--98 yards on 21 carries and could not find the endzone. Ian Baldwin was just 19-of-35 for 187 yards with one touchdown through the air and one interception--though he did also execute a surprise quarterback sneak to score his first rushing touchdown and extend the lead to 14-0. Albert Wenzel didn't do much from the slot, coming up with just 24 yards on 3 catches. The one thing that was working on a consistent basis, though, was Jeremy Bridges. That's not something that's been said much in a season that's been difficult for the senior, but he had 5 catches for a team-high and personal season-best 67 yards and the only receiving touchdown of the game for the Cowboys. He's third on the team in receiving yards with 311; his success can mean the offense hums like a machine, but his success can also be the difference between an ugly win like Saturday's or an ugly loss like this could have been.
Vexing Vaughn: Even if Oklahoma State's offense was out of sync, its pass defense was on point. Jurrell Jordan was of course making his way into the Iowa State backfield, recording his 8th tackle for loss, his 3rd sack, and also his 9th tackle for loss of his freshman season. In the defensive backfield, Sebastian Byrd intercepted a pass for the second straight game, tying him with Troy Marshall for 6th on the Big XII career list with his 16th. Senior nickel corner Eric McNeal also recorded his third career interception, and the defense held Vaughn Sheppard to just 15-of-32 through the air for 148 yards and 2 interceptions. Sheppard's career-best streak of 8 straight games with a touchdown pass is over, and the 73.2 passer rating he put up was his lowest since a 60.7 rating against Texas Tech as a freshman.
Resisting Rallies: Kofi McCullough still nearly brought Iowa State all the way back by himself. He only had 18 carries, but he made as much of them as he could. He finished with 100 yards on the dot. He was responsible for both of Iowa State's touchdowns, and he also had a 26-yard carry that set up a field goal attempt for Evan Shipley...which clanged off the upright from 43 yards. He just couldn't get Iowa State close enough, because Oklahoma State was doing just enough to keep them at arm's length. Iowa State's second-half red-zone defense was on point, but the best red-zone defense is to keep the opponent as far away from it as possible. They couldn't do that. Oklahoma State got as far as the 10-yard line in the third quarter, and Iowa State forced them to settle for a field goal. They got as far as the 8-yard line in the fourth quarter, and Iowa State once again forced them to settle for a field goal. But those field goals were enough cushion to keep Oklahoma State out in front and stymie the upset bid.
Next Up: Iowa State drops to 4-2 (2-1) and has a bye week from all of their spookiness before road dates at Oklahoma and TCU. Even if they don't win those games, they'll still have a good shot at bowl eligibility with Kansas, West Virginia, and Kansas State on the horizon. Oklahoma State survives and improves to 6-0 (3-0), becoming the first Big XII team to reach bowl eligibility. They'll get a bye before facing those same three opponents--Kansas, Kansas State, and a rematch with a West Virginia team that beat them last year.
Byes: #1/#1 Oklahoma (5-0), Baylor (3-2), #23/NR Texas Tech (4-1)