Who’s afraid of the big bad Cyclones? Many Hawkeye fans might answer in the affirmative when asked this question. It seems like Iowa State gives their all in this game every year (except this one) and plays out of their minds and into close contests. Is it the Paul Rhoads-es and Dan McCarneys giving their best locker room speeches and spiking the Hateorade with performance enhancing miracles? Possibly. Maybe. My cynical side would like to believe that the ‘Clones have such a little brother complex that they live and breathe to do nothing other than beat the bigger, stronger older brother. But my grounded-in-reality side wonders if there’s something else.
Iowa’s offense is predicated on establishing the run to set up the play action and drop-back passing game. The rest of the Big Ten reinforces this, as it is the strategy of many other teams in the conference. Sure there the rogues, the Buckeyes and Hoosiers with their spread read-options and air raid offenses. But for the most part, Iowa plays in the trenches and so do its opponents. This type of play means Iowa also needs to excel at controlling the pace of play and limiting mistakes. By this point, it’s nearly a trope to say that Kirk Ferentz’s philosophy relies on game management rather than explosive plays.
So what does this mean for the annual ISU game? It’s simple. Iowa State plays in a conference that is dominated by high-tempo, big-play offenses and this is, in a nutshell, what ISU attempts to do as well. This means that ISU, despite being a perennial opponent, represents a change of pace for Iowa. In these games, if Iowa is unable to establish their running attack, the margin for error becomes incredibly slim. And when that margin of error is minimal, mistakes (like turnovers) become a huge factor.
Bear with me, because I know this chart is a lot to take in at once. The important thing to note is that red bars are years when Iowa State won the contest. These years are where we’re going to primarily focus. In all but two of Iowa’s losses, they failed to rush for their average yards per carry (4.25 against ISU, 4 against all opponents). These are the cases where we can say that Iowa did not establish control of the pace of play, and are, therefore, games where the margin for error was very small. As much as I loved Mark Weisman’s story, pluck, courage, tenacity (insert all of the necessary adjectives here)... he was a 3-4 YPC running back, and the YPC for games in 2012-2014 bear that out.
Now, looking at 2002 and 2005, the two games where Iowa had success rushing and still lost, we can look at the numbers in gold. This is Iowa’s turnover margin for those games. In both cases, Iowa had a negative margin, meaning they were unable to limit their own mistakes. Is that the only reason for those losses? Maybe not, but it certainly would explain a lot.
Finally, let’s look at the 4 games with the highest YPC for Iowa: 2009, 2010, 2015, and this past weekend. In games like these where Iowa was able to effectively and efficiently move the ball, Iowa was able to win in decisive fashion, regardless of turnover margin (2015 and 2016 had margins of 0 and +1 respectively).
So what does this all mean? Looking just as the numbers, Iowa State had very little to do with their successes. Instead, when Iowa State won, it was because Iowa failed to establish the run game effectively and/or failed significantly to limit avoidable turnovers. I’ll just come right out and say it: Iowa State really hasn’t really beaten Iowa recently, Iowa has simply beaten itself in those cases.