WHO: Iowa State Cyclones (1-0)
WHEN: Saturday, September 14
WHERE: Jack Trice Stadium (Ames, IA)
KICKOFF: 3:00 PM Central
ONLINE: Fox Sports Go
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Iowa -1.5
WEATHER: low 80s, partly cloudy
Did you know these two teams have been playing one another for several years? And that they don't much like each other? Pretty crazy! Iowa has dominated the series historically and in more recent years as well, winning seven of the last ten and the last four in a row. That's fun.
IOWA STATE SEASON RECAP
Iowa State is 1-0, having held off a furious upset bid from UNI in Week One with a 3OT win, 29-26. As Iowa fans know, an early season scare from UNI is a death knell; no team has ever gone on to have a good season after that. That game... was a weird one. Iowa State outgained UNI by 200 yards, but struggled to turn that advantage into points. Iowa State punted from the UNI side of the field twice in the first half and turned the ball over on downs at the UNI 41 on another drive. In the second half they gave up a fumble (the only turnover of the game for either team) that was returned for a touchdown; then they missed a field goal from the UNI 13 on the ensuing drive. Those two drives were a pretty big swing of events. They held UNI's offense to just two field goal drives in regulation.
IOWA STATE OFFENSE
For the fourth straight year, Iowa State will welcome a new QB to the Cy-Hawk cauldron. The last time they had a starting QB play in more than one Cy-Hawk game? Sam Richardson, who started in 2014 and 2015. Iowa State coaches, reporters, and fans are convinced that they finally have their man at the QB position, though, and, in fairness, they might be right. Brock Purdy has been generally superb for the Cyclones since he took over the job as a freshman midway through the season last year. Purdy completed an eye-popping 66.4% of his passes last yer, for 2250 yards (10.2 yards per attempt), with 16 TD against 7 INT. He picked up where he left off in the UNI game, going 30/31 (73.2%) for 278 yards (6.8 yards per attempt) with 2 TD and 0 INT. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about a hyper-accurate Purdy squaring off with Iowa's injury-riddled secondary.
The skill positions are full of new faces after the NFL-induced departures of former stars David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler. ISU rolled with a RB-by-committee approach against UNI, with Johnnie Lang (5-9, 193, SO), Sheldon Croney, Jr. (5-11, 206, SR), and Breece Hall (6-1, 205, FR) each running for 10+ carries and 47 or more yards. There wasn't much difference between them in terms of production -- they all ended up averaging around 4.3 yards per carry. Croney is also a threat through the air; he caught nine passes last year and already had three catches in the UNI game. Iowa State actually lists five potential running backs on its depth chart (6-1, 205-lb JR Kene Nwangwu and 5-11, 205-lb FR Jirehl Brock joining the three aforementioned backs), so I think it's fair to expect a lot of different faces in the backfield and a heavy rotation, unless one guy gets a hot hand.
At receiver, the excellent Butler (60 catches, 1318 yards, 9 TD) is gone, but three of ISU's other top four receivers are back. Deshaunte Jones (5-10, 180, SR) was second on the team in catches (43) and touchdowns (4) last year and he was a very popular target for Purdy against UNI: 14 receptions (!) for 126 yards. He figures to be a top option for Purdy in this game, too, so slowing him down will be a key priority for Iowa's secondary. Tarique Milton (5-10, 183, SO) was second on the team in yards in 2018 (417), but he didn't have a catch against UNI. Senior La'Michael Pettway (6'2, 223) is the main option with size in the receiver corps; he had three catches for 26 yards against UNI -- and both of Purdy's passing touchdowns. Iowa State also has a viable option at tight end in Charlie Kolar (6-6, 252, SO); he was quiet in 2018 (11 receptions, 137 yards, 3 TD), but had four catches for 45 yards against UNI.
The strength of the ISU offense (aside from Purdy) is probably the offensive line, where they have considerable experience; four of their listed starters (everyone but Colin Newell, a sophomore at center) are seniors and cumulatively they have over 100 combined starts. They took their lumps early in their career, but that experience is paying off with a strong front this year. The question mark is Newell, who is an injury concern for tomorrow's game; if he can't play, ISU will have to decide whether or not to re-arrange the line to address that hole or just sub in his backup. If they don't shuffle the line, we could see a key clash between Iowa State's SR left tackle, Julian Good-Jones (6-5, 308) and Iowa's terrormonster defensive end, A.J. Epenesa.
IOWA STATE DEFENSE
Defense has been the area Matt Campbell has shored up the most in his four years at Iowa State; they ranked 33rd in total defense, 37th in scoring defense, and 14th in rushing defense last season. The bulk of their front seven from last year is back this year as well. Iowa State runs a base 3-3-5 defense, which presents an unfamiliar look for Iowa -- and a new challenge. (You can read more about it here, here, and here.) The three-man front is going to put a lot of pressure on the interior of Iowa's offensive line -- which also happens to be the weakest part of Iowa's offensive line. The star in the middle of the DL for Iowa State is SR nose tackle Ray Lima (6-3, 305), who had 34 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last year; slowing him will be a big test for Iowa's freshman center, Tyler Linderbaum. Senior DE JaQuan Bailey (6-2, 225) has the splashier stats -- he had 46 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks last year. Junior end Enyi Uwazurike (6-6, 285) and senior DT Jamahl Johnson (6-0, 300) are two of the other top options along the defensive line.
Despite losing Willie Harvey (76 tackles, 9 TFL, 3.5 sacks) from last year's defense, LB remains a strong unit for Iowa. Mike Rose was good at MLB as a freshman a year ago, but the Cyclones moved him to strong-side linebacker this year and through one game -- 8 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks -- the results seem promising. Sophomore O'Rien Vance (6-1, 231) replaced Rose at MLB and he had a good start as well -- 8 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks. The third linebacker, Marcel Spears, Jr., led the team with 9 tackles to go with 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.
Iowa State is a bit less experienced in the secondary, where they lost SR cornerbacks Brian Peavy, D'Andre Payne, and De'Monte Ruth from last year's unit, but there's still a fair amount back. "Star" safety Greg Elsworth (6-0, 205, JR) led last year's team in tackles (87) and he's back in that role this year. The other two safeties, Braxton Lewis (5-11, 190, SR) and Lawrence White (6-0, 196, JR), are both back after playing extensively last year, though Lewis is an injury concern for Saturday's game. Cornerbacks Anthony Johnson (6-0, 186) and Datrone Young (5-9, 176) saw action in several games last year (11 and 8, respectively), but they still represent the weaker links in the secondary, especially against Iowa's more experienced receivers.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
The strengths of both teams are in the trenches; Iowa has superstars on both sides of the line, as well as talented complementary pieces, while Iowa State has deep, experienced units with high levels of continuity. So will those battles decide things -- or will it be the battles that are more mismatched on paper? Both Iowa and Iowa State have question marks in their secondary; both also have talented quarterbacks. Maybe the game comes down to which QB can better exploit the failings of the opposing secondary? Purdy has an edge in accuracy, but Stanley has more experience (especially in high-pressure games, although his own performances in such games haven't always been stellar) and the better set of receivers. If Iowa's offensive line can keep his pocket clean, he could have some success connecting on shots downfield to Smith, Smith-Marsette, Ragaini, and Martin. Conversely, if Iowa's defense isn't able to pressure Purdy, it wouldn't be a shock to see his accurate passing slowly and methodically drive Iowa State down the field. The battle in the trenches will be key, but the team with the better QB play seems most likely to win this game.
WHAT WE WANT TO SEE
Just get a win. There are no style points in the Cy-Hawk game, especially with both teams being on fairly level footing for this game. We don't particularly care how it happens, we just want to see Iowa with more points than Iowa State when the clock hits zero.
I've gone back and forth on this game. Before the season, I favored Iowa State slightly, given some of the question marks in Iowa's team. But Iowa has looked better over the last few games, while Iowa State struggled mightily with UNI (albeit in a somewhat fluky way). The patchwork nature of Iowa's secondary is concerning; FS Kaevon Merriweather seems likely to miss out again and CB Matt Hankins could be out as well. Their replacements figure would be largely inexperienced players -- Jack Koerner and either D.J. Johnson or Terry Roberts. That's anxiety-inducing, especially against a QB as good as Purdy. The off-the-field factors -- College GameDay, Ames -- could cut either way. Iowa has won three in a row in Ames, but it's still going to be a hostile environment -- probably doubly so given the GameDay energy. Then again, will GameDay itself lead to an extra-motivated ISU squad -- or a more distracted one? Questions, questions, questions. That said... Iowa has the best players in this game, they seem better at most areas on the field (even if only slightly), and they have experience at several key positions (most notably, quarterback). I think that pays off.
Iowa 27, Iowa State 20