#10 Iowa Hawkeyes at #9 Iowa State Cyclones: Game Preview

By RossWB on September 11, 2021 at 6:30 am
go hawks go
© Brian Powers/The Register, Des Moines Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Something has to give.

Iowa has won seven straight games dating back to the 2020 season; Iowa State has won seven of eight, including wins over ranked Texas and Oregon teams in that span. Iowa has been outscoring opponents by 23 ppg during that streak and holding foes to an average of 12.7 ppg. Iowa State's defense has been equally impressive, allowing a grand total of 16 points in the second halves of their last six games, less than 3 ppg per game in the second half.

 The last two Cy-Hawk games, since the offensive orgy that was the 2017 game, have largely been defensive slugfests (if you're feeling nice) or offensively-challenged rock fights (if you're not). The total didn't even sniff 20 points in 2018, while Iowa and Iowa State had to scratch and claw to combine for 35 points in 2019. Given that trend and the quality both defenses have displayed this season (and at the end of last season), points figure to be at a premium in this game -- again. 


While their defense has been a driving force behind their recent success, the biggest reason for optimism for Iowa State in this game is probably on the offensive side of the ball. Iowa State will run out a backfield of Brock Purdy and Breece Hall, which is a pretty formidable tandem. Iowa State's ability to get Hall on track could be pivotal to their success in this game. He basically didn't play against Iowa the last time these teams played (1 carry, 0 yards), but he still finished as their leading rusher in 2019 (897 yards and 9 TD on 186 carries, 4.8 ypc) and blew up as one of the best running backs in the country in 2020 (1572 yards and 21 TD on 279 carries 5.6 ypc). He enters this game having run for at least one touchdown in 13 straight games and 2 or more TDs in 8 of those 13 games. Iowa's run defense is reliably stout -- they were 10th in the nation last year at 107.6 ypc, and gave up just 2.8 ypc and 8 TD on the ground -- but Hall may be the stiffest test they've faced in a while. Weirdly, Hall was slightly worse at home (5.2 ypc) than he was on the road (6.1 ypc) last year. 

Purdy did play in the Iowa game in 2019 and he played well; 24/34 for 276 yards (70.6%, 8.1 ypa), 1 TD, 0 INT. Iowa probably can't afford to allow him to put up numbers like that again this year. While ISU struggled to finish drives with touchdowns against UNI in Week One, Purdy wasn't bad -- 21/26 for 199 yards (80.8%, 7.7 ypa), 0 TD, 0 INT. Purdy burned Iowa with big plays in the 2019 game, but he's adept at methodically completing short passes as well. That accuracy -- 66.6% in 2020, 65.7% in 2019 -- could make him a difficult threat for Iowa's secondary to slow down. One stat to (maybe) watch: interceptions. ISU went 2-3 in games when Purdy threw an interception last year and 7-0 in games when he didn't throw a pick. (On the other hand, ISU went 5-2 when Purdy threw a pick in 2019 and 2-4 in games where Purdy didn't throw a pick that year, so the interception:wins ratio here may be coincidence more than anything else.) 

Purdy's favorite target last year (and against UNI in Week One) was 6'3", 207 lb WR Xavier Hutchinson. He led ISU in receptions (64), and receiving yards (771) last year and finished second in touchdowns (4). Against UNI, Hutchinson had seven receptions for 88 yards. Purdy figures to look for him early and often in the passing game. ISU was without one of their top assets in the passing game against UNI, but I believe TE Charlie Kolar is expected to play against Iowa. Kolar was second on the team in receptions (44) and receiving yards (591) and led the team in touchdowns (7). If he's healthy, slowing him down will be a big ask for Iowa's linebackers. 

Iowa State has some very good individual talent on on offense in Purdy, Hall, Kolar, and Hutchinson. Iowa doesn't (yet) have any superstar playmakers on this year's defense, but they succeed instead by being very good on all three levels and working together seamlessly. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts for the Iowa defense this year; they're going to need to stay in sync to slow down the Cyclones. 


The biggest question marks in this game are in this matchup and particularly on the Iowa side of things. Can Spencer Petras, Tyler Goodson, Tyrone Tracy, and Sam LaPorta provide enough productivity -- and points -- on offense to win this game? Iowa has outrushed Iowa State in all five of the games in their current winning streak in this series. It's hard to see that winning streak continuing this year if Iowa isn't able to outrush the Cyclones again in this game. Iowa State's run defense isn't going to make that easy. In 2020 they finished 8th in the nation and gave up just 103 ypg and 3.2 ypc. They held seven teams under 100 rushing yards in 2020. UNI had no success on the ground against them in Week One: 26 carries, 45 yards (1.73 ypc).

Iowa's rushing offense struggled to find consistency against Indiana last week. Goodson's 56-yard run four plays into the game was a thing of beauty, but it was also the product of some busted coverage. Iowa's numbers with that run were somewhat middling -- 36 carries, 158 yards (4.4 ypc), 2 TD -- but they were really unimpressive without that big play -- 35 carries, 102 yards (2.9 ypc), 1 TD. They'll need to find more consistency -- and better play overall -- to keep their running game effective against Iowa State. 

And a strong running game seems pivotal to Iowa's hopes of prevailing on offense in this game. Iowa has won the time of possession battle in most (if not all) of the games during their current five-game winning streak against Iowa State and winning the TOP battle is almost always built on having a running game that's at least moderately effective. Time of possession can be an overrated statistic, but it can be a useful one for Iowa, whose gameplans often rely on keeping the ball away from the opposing offense and preventing the Iowa defense from getting gassed. Purdy & Co. can't hurt Iowa if they're stuck on the sideline. 

A strong running game is also a must for Iowa because it can prevent the Hawkeyes from having to rely too much on Spencer Petras and the passing game. That seems important, given Petras' inconsistency through nine games as a starter. Petras went 140/245 (57.1%) for 1569 yards, 9 TD, and 5 INT in eight starts last year. He didn't get off to the hottest start against Indiana, either: 13/27 (48.1%), 145 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT. That said, Petras was noticeably better on the road (59.3%, 6.9 ypa, 4 TD, 1 INT) than at home (54.8%, 5.9 ypa, 5 TD, 4 INT) last year. He also showed improvement throughout the season (October: 53.3%, 5.3 ypa, 1 TD, 3 INT, 95.2 QB rating; November: 58.1%, 6.4 ypa, 3 TD, 2 INT, 117.2 QB rating; December: 60.4%, 8.1 ypa, 5 TD, 0 INT, 159.8 QB rating).

One key stat with Petras is pass attempts. He threw 45 (!) times per game against Purdue and Northwestern last year; Iowa lost both games. He threw around 26 times per game in Iowa's remaining six games last year; they won all six. He threw 28 times against Indiana. If Iowa can keep his attempts under 30, the offense is probably doing enough good things to put the team in a position to win. If Petras has to throw 30+ times, the run game has probably been ineffective and Iowa's offense is likely struggling to move the ball and score points. Based on what we've seen from Petras so far, we don't want to put the game on his arm. 


One area where Iowa could have a notable advantage in the game is special teams. While Tory Taylor couldn't quite pin Indiana inside the 20 with his punts last week, he still averaged a booming 49.5 yards per kick on his six attempts and we know from what he did last year that his accuracy on those kicks is usually pretty strong. ISU's Corey Dunn averaged just 39.8 yards per punt on six tries against UNI last week. The return game could also favor Iowa. Charlie Jones averaged 9.3 yards per return on three returns last week, after averaging 10.5 yards per return on 21 tries in 2020. He's a legitimate weapon for Iowa and a key source of hidden yards. Iowa State did not return any punts last week and returned just 11 tries for 59 yards in 2020. 

Placekicking could make a difference as well. Keith Duncan, one of Iowa's main heroes in the 2019 win, is no longer on the team, but Caleb Shudak looked good in his stead against Indiana, converting both of his field goal tries. He also booted all four of his kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks after posting a 58.8% touchback rate in 2020. Connor Assalley and Andrew Mevis combined to convert all three of their field goal attempts against UNI (Assalley was good from 21 and 35 yards out, while Mevis made a 40-yard FG), and Mevis also sent three of his four kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Assalley has more experience than Shudak (he's been starting since 2018), but his kicks haven't exactly featured laser-guided accuracy; he went 16/23 (69.6%) in 2018, 15/19 (78.9%) in 2019, and 13/19 (68.4%) in 2020. 

Special teams have played a key role in several of Iowa's recent wins over Iowa State (none moreso than 2019, between Duncan's four field goals and the muffed punt that sealed Iowa's victory) and Iowa probably needs to win this category again to have their best shot at winning the game. Punting (and punt returns) in particular could loom large in a game that could feature a lot of defense. Getting short fields could be an enormous boon for Iowa's offense while pinning Iowa State deep and forcing Purdy & Co. to traverse the length of the field could help slow down the ISU attack. 


This is the 9th start of Spencer Petras' career -- but it's also the first in which he'll be faced with a hostile road environment. The fact that he has so much experience already (albeit primarily in empty stadiums) is nice -- it's certainly better than if he was making this trip in his second-ever start -- but playing in front of 50,000+ Iowa State fans screaming for blood is going to be an adjustment. On the other hand, the ISU crowd could turn into a disadvantage (or at least be a non-factor) if Iowa can play well early in the game and keep them quiet. If things don't go well for ISU, it wouldn't be a shock if a "here we go again..." feeling descended on the players and fans, which could lead to miscues for ISU. 

How will pressure impact both teams as well? Teams with lengthy winning streaks often feel the pressure of trying to maintain those streaks; that could work against Iowa. On the other hand, Iowa State is the higher-ranked team and betting favorite and they're at home; for the first time in a long time they're actually expected (and favored) to win this game. How well will they handle being the hunters rather than the hunted? The pressure of the streak could impact them as well; they're sure to be a bit desperate to finally end this five-game losing streak to Iowa. Pressure could be a factor for both teams, but it does feel like there's more pressure on Iowa State to come through in this game than Iowa. 


I can see a path to victory for Iowa in this game. Iowa's defense is certainly good enough to keep it in just about any game, so that's step one. That same defense probably needs to force a turnover or two as well (something they've been among the best in the nation at over the last few seasons). Iowa also needs to be better on special teams, win the field position battle, and get a good performance from Tyler Goodson and the Iowa running game. If that happens, they can come away from Ames with another win. I want to pick that to happen and for Iowa to get the victory here. But... I can't shake the feeling that Petras is going to struggle in a hostile environment and that Purdy is going to outplay him and that's going to be the difference. I think it's a close game, but Purdy makes more plays in the fourth quarter to lead Iowa State to their first victory over Iowa since 2014. Let's hope I'm wrong.


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