Quick aside: I hope this week hasn't made you want to watch this game less. I bring that up because for a while it made me want to watch this game less. But upon further thought, I don't think that's the message to take from this week. Football, and being a Hawkeye, is what made Tyler Sash the happiest. The team honors him by going out and playing as hard as he did, and we fans honor him by creating the type of environment that made him so happy to be a Hawkeye to begin with. Cheer loud this weekend and this season, friends. Onward.
Opponent: Iowa State Cyclones (1-0, unranked)
Saturday, September 12, 3:45 p.m., Jack Trice Stadium
Television: FOX (coverage is scheduled to begin at 3:30, but there is baseball beforehand, so, good luck)
Kickoff weather: Clear, 67 degrees. Two degrees away from nice. 60s through game time.
WHEN IOWA STATE HAS THE BALL
If the Cyclones have one strength, it's the offensive ingenuity of Mark Mangino, who continues to slum it as an offensive coordinator at one of the lowliest Power 5 schools after a career at Kansas that ended at 50-48 (the ensuing four coaches are a combined 11-49). Mangino isn't working with a loaded set of talent, but he does get his limited set of playmakers the ball with unusual formations, play-calls and route combinations.
Quenton Bundrage is back and healthy for his senior season after missing 2014. Iowa fans will remember him as the guy who caught three touchdowns as ISU staged a furious late rally in 2013, only to come up short as Iowa prevailed 27-21. He led the team with five catches last week, for 53 yards. Dondre Daley looked like more of a downfield threat as he caught four passes for 70 yards, including a 36-yard TD that pushed ISU's lead to 17-7 early in third quarter action against UNI. Then there's former four-star dynamo Allen Lazard, who also logged four catches and a third-quarter score last week and will present a monstrous challenge to Iowa's defensive backs—especially if Mangino can scheme him away from Desmond King's watchful eyes. There are weapons here, and if returning senior QB Sam B. Richardson can take advantage, Iowa's in for a fight.
The offensive line has struggled at times but they've got 80 career starts altogether, including five starters from last year (it should be noted that a 350-pound JuCo transfer named Wendell Taiese is entrenched at LG while two starters battle for the RG role, so it's not precisely the same line Iowa saw last year). Behind them is sophomore tailback Tyler Brown, who was effective in his first start against UNI (11 rushes, 68 yards). There's no meaningful experience behind him.
So altogether there's some real capability here. That all said, that's pretty much what Rob Thomas and me were worried about with Illinois State, and Iowa walloped the vaunted Redbird offense, who managed all of zero points, eight first downs and a hair over 100 yards in the first three quarters before garbage time commenced. Iowa fans probably shouldn't expect a similar lockdown performance by the starters... but if it happens, well, don't act like the Hawkeye D didn't warn everyone.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
Iowa State famously surrendered at least 30 points to every single opponent in 2014... except for Iowa, who bumbled to 17 points in last year's heartbreaker. And while ISU only has four returning starters actually atop their two-deeps, two more returning starters (linebackers Kane Seeley and Luke Knott) have been beaten out for their starting spots, so ISU's depth is asserting itself—and the results were plainly evident as the Cyclones harassed the Panthers into 302 yards of total offense and two turnovers (and most importantly, seven points) last Saturday.
Yes, former Illinois QB Aaron Bailey had a rough day for UNI (19 attempts plus 114 yards equals no bueno), and C.J. Beathard should be able to move the ball through the air just a little better than that. And yet the secondary is probably ISU's strength with three official returning starters and the fourth—strong safety Qujuan Floyd—making his fourth straight start after emerging late last year. Cornerbacks Nigel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson are the two most experienced members of the defense, but they're on the smallish side and Tevaun Smith should be able to exert some physicality in these matchups if he's really the NFL prospect Iowa fans would like to believe.
The Cyclone ends are on the smallish side, with Trent Taylor (267 pounds) and Gabe Luna (243) splitting time on one edge and Dale Pierson (249) holding down the other; none are listed taller than 6'2". If Iowa's tackle trio of Boone Myers, Ike Boettger and Cole Croston are as legit as the Redbirds' ends made them look last week (as opposed to how, uh, illegit Drew Ott and Nate Meier did during the spring) then Iowa should be able to work the edges in the outside zone run game. Iowa State's linebackers are also smallish but fast, and we'll see how much thump LeShun Daniels still has after slimming down when he meets someone like 218-pound WLB Luke Peters in the open field.
Northern Iowa leaned on Bailey in a way Iowa wouldn't dream of with Beathard—Bailey threw 19 passes and rushed 22 times, accounting for over half of UNI's 75 snaps—so there's only so much to be gleaned from what was overall a positive performance from the Cyclone defense last week. UNI didn't find any success deep last week, whereas Iowa was plenty successful against the Redbirds without making the effort to go long. Does that mean the Hawkeyes are walking into ISU's defensive strength yet again, or does it mean the Cyclones' defensive strategy won't be as successful as a team as physical up front as Iowa?
Iowa State only gained eight more yards from scrimmage than the Panthers last week. The difference was special teams, where the Cyclones ripped off 193 return yards between Lazard and Trever Ryan, including an 81-yard score by Ryan to seal the game late. Lazard is the real threat here, though, and while Iowa was able to keep the Clones' punt return game in check last year (no returns on four punts, including three inside the 20 for Dillon Kidd) Iowa fans know all too well what happens when a dangerous return man gets loose against Iowa's punt coverage.
Then again, Iowa busted out the punt shield formation last week, so perhaps it's a brand new day.
ISU kicker Cole Netten, whom you may remember from your nightmares roughly one year ago, had a rough first week, making only one of three field goal attempts after a pretty solid 2014. He'll probably be nails this week. Iowa kicker Marshall Koehn nailed a 40-yarder with ease against Illinois State; his early 2014 jitters appear to be long, long gone.
This has been a rough week in Iowa City, and doubtless everyone in that locker room—players and coaches alike—are eager to just get on the field and get back to business. The games still go on, and there'll be time for tears, hugs, what have you after the final whistle.
I think Iowa wins this one. I think Iowa State is somewhere between Illinois State and Iowa in terms of quality, and while this'll be a hostile atmosphere and Kirk Ferentz is not a great close-game coach, the talent discrepancy is probably just too much for Iowa State to overcome.
Go Iowa Awesome.