When it comes to the annual Cy-Hawk Trophy game, clichés like "throwing out the record books" always seem to ring true. It's irrelevant what the all-time series is at. It's irrelevant whether Iowa is 1-0 or 0-1 or whether Iowa State lost their season opener to an FCS team. It's irrelevant whether Iowa is ranked (I can't even remember the last time that happened, actually). Those things don't matter. What is relevant is how Iowa game plans for the ninth most important game on Kirk Ferentz's schedule and everything that unfolds on the field at Jack Trice Stadium on September 12th, 2015. The unit battles will be key. Here're the big units for Iowa State.
Linebackers vs. Wide Receivers
Last week against UNI the Cyclones had four wide receivers average over 10 YPC and three with four or more receptions for a total of 233 yards and two touchdowns. There were four plays worth noting:
ED NOTE: The only available footage of this game came in the form of highlights provided by Cyclone TV. It was in low-definition, so I apologize if I got any UNI players names incorrect.
- In the second quarter, Iowa State is on UNI's 15-yard line in a four-wide-receiver set with Allen Lazard lined up double stacked on the strong side. Richardson hikes the ball, play-action fakes, and UNI middle linebacker De'Angelo Jennings bites. Lazard runs a shallow post over the top of the zone, Richardson fires and completes it to Lazard, who is brought down at the one-yard line. ISU eventually punches it in with Joshua Thomas.
- In the third quarter, Iowa State is on UNI's 36-yard line in a four-wide receiver set with Dondre Daley lined up on the far weak side. The Cyclones patiently set up a tunnel screen, the cornerback is gobbled up by the slot receiver and Richardson tosses it to Daley. The outside linebacker, who I believe is Jared Farley, finds himself on an island, taking on three offensive linemen by himself. He's easily blocked, Daley rushes past him, breaks a couple more tackles and scores.
- In the third quarter, Iowa State is on UNI's 23-yard line in a trips formation on the strong side, featuring Quenton Bundrage as the primary wide receiver. Richardson snaps the ball, the cornerback is gobbled up by the flanker, Bundrage steps back, catches the pass and UNI linebacker Brett McMakin is quickly blocked by the slot receiver. Bundrage runs outside, gets down to the one-yard line and dives, actually turning the ball over on a touchback as he fumbles into the end zone.
- Finally, on Iowa State's final offensive score of the game, the Cyclones line up on UNI's 13-yard line in a trips formation on the strong side with Lazard in the slot. Richardson takes the snap, Lazard runs a wheel route right over the top of linebacker Brett McMakin, who is responsible for the flat, and brings in an easy touchdown catch.
Obviously, there are more players on the football field than the linebackers. But it just so happens that in two of these plays the linebackers were directly responsible for covering the wide receiver who caught the pass and in the other two the linebackers found themselves terribly out of position.
Think back to last season when Iowa State beat Iowa at Kinnick (I'm sorry to bring it up but it's necessary). The Cyclones spread the ball around to eight different wide receivers for a total of 255 yards with five of those wide receivers averaging more than 10 YPC. How did they score? Remember poor Reggie Spearman chasing DeVondrick Nealy on that wheel route? Or remember how the entirety of Iowa's defense, including Quinton Alston, believed that Richardson was going to run into the end zone when he flipped it to a wide-open E.J. Bibbs for a fingertip grab and a touchdown?
Iowa's secondary is arguably one the best that Iowa State will face all season. That means Mark Mangino, who is no fool and you're a fool if you take him as one, will be figuring out ways poke holes in Iowa's linebacker core with the speed of Bundrage and Daley and the size of Lazard and D'Vario Montgomery.
Admittedly, these aren't the same linebackers that Iowa State saw last season. Bower no longer starts, Alston graduated and Spearman plays for a team that Iowa just beat. However, we have yet to see how Niemann, Jewell and Fisher fare against the pass. Tre Roberson was being harassed so much last weekend that he barely had an opportunity to throw the ball. While the linebackers should be commended with how they assisted in the containment of Marshaun Coprich, pass coverage is a whole ‘nother ball game. They'll need to be disciplined if they hope to contain Iowa State's wide receivers.
Quarterbacks (There's only one) vs. Defensive Line
It has to be some sort of statistical anomaly, right? Iowa hasn't eclipsed more than four yards per carry against ISU since 2010. They only averaged 2.9 YPC last year. They haven't thrown for more than 200 yards against ISU since 2012. Jake Rudock was sacked four times in last year's game at Kinnick. He was sacked twice the year before. (Horrifying stat, by the way, Iowa has only sacked ISU quarterbacks a total of four times since 2009).
With so many struggles over the past couple of seasons, it's difficult to figure out who should be responsible for generating the offense. But, considering what happened last year, we'll settle for C.J. Beathard. In 2014, Rudock gave an extremely Rob Boldenesque performance, going 16/24 for 146 yards and an interception. But...it was the sacks that stand out.
Iowa State's defensive line notched four sacks against UNI last weekend: Three from defensive end Dale Pierson and one from nose guard Demond Tucker. Pierson came to Iowa State as a JUCO and didn't start until late last season. In his final four games, he recorded 22 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and two sacks. At 6'2, 249, he's the smallest guy on the line (weight wise) but clearly has that "high motor" we Iowans value so much in a defensive lineman.
Opposite of Pierson is Trent Taylor, a one-time 4-star recruit who originally signed with and played for Tennessee before "transferring" to a JUCO and signing with ISU in 2014. He started eight games last year and was responsible for one of the sacks on Rudock.
At nose tackle is 300lb Demond Tucker, another JUCO (this is a trend) who signed in late 2014 and was recruited by the likes of ASU, TCU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He enrolled, said something along the lines of "I'm going to start" and sure enough, he's starting. The only non-JUCO on the line is Pierre Aka. Humorous tidbit: his biography lists him as choosing "Iowa State over offer from Minnesota." He's 6'4, 293 and is the tallest defensive lineman ISU has on the field.
At this point, you may be asking "Well, shouldn't these guys be the offensive line's concern"? Partially. Beathard gets the nod here because we're hoping that he doesn't do what his predecessor did in 2014: panic too early, run and fall down for a sack. Poor pocket awareness isn't the offensive line's problem. It's the quarterback's.
We're optimistic about Beathard because he's the antithesis of what we'd come to expect from an Iowa quarterback. He takes risks, has solid pocket awareness and can run (the laser-rocket arm doesn't hurt). If Iowa's to be successful against Iowa State's defense they'll not only need Beathard to make his throws but also know when to step-up in the pocket, when to run, and when to throw the ball away. If he makes smart decisions and handles the pressure from Iowa State's defensive line, his teammates should do the rest.