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Behind Enemy Lines: Wide Right & Natty Lite Discusses Iowa - Iowa State Football

Iowa State comes to town a much improved team since the last time these teams squared off.

NCAA Football: South Dakota State at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s Cy-Hawk game has HUGE implications, particularly because for the first time in a long time, both the Hawkeyes and Cyclones are expected to be good! A win for the Hawkeyes means that their senior class goes 4-0 against Iowa State in their careers, while a victory for the Cyclones proves to Iowa fans that this Iowa State team is for real and gets them the football braggin’ rights they haven’t had in so long.

Ahead of this week’s contest, we’re running a Q&A with Wide Right & Natty Lite, SB Nation’s source of all things Iowa State. Joining us is their managing editor, Levi Stevenson, who was gracious enough to answer a handful of questions about the Cyclones so us Iowa fans could learn a little bit more about the team that will step into Kinnick Stadium this weekend.

Max Brekke: Year 2 was a big one for the Cyclones under Matt Campbell, as they had their first winning season since 2009 and had a few upset victories against top-10 teams. What do they do for an encore in 2018?

Levi Stevenson: Honestly, most people have set the expectation at 6-8 wins, with a 9 win season being in the cards if enough dominoes fell in our favor. Now that we’ve lost a game, you can probably just scale all of those back by one. With the exception of Joel Lanning and Kamari Cotton-Moya, the entire defense is back. However, Greg Eisworth is a better coverage safety than KCM was, so the already stingy defense should be even better. BHGP’s summer preview on the Iowa State game said the Hawks should throw early and often against Iowa State, based on yards/rec allowed and passing yards/game allowed. I can assure you that this is bad advice. In Big 12 play (essentially the duration of the 3-man front last year), the Cyclone held all but Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at least two touchdowns below their scoring averages, and that was largely due to this defense’s ability to slow down the passing game.

Redshirt junior nose tackle Ray Lima anchors a very talented defensive line (that felt weird to type) that will anchor the defense from the front. He’s one of the best defensive lineman in the Big 12, and one of the most underappreciated in the country. Simply put, he’s 100% of the reason the 3-3-5 stack defense was so successful last year. He’s guaranteed to eat up two blockers every single play (and still breaks through somewhat frequently), freeing up a fourth rusher that can be disguised and deployed from anywhere (a signature of the 3-3-5). Simply put, he’s the single most valuable player on the defense.

The offense obviously lost receiving threats Allen Lazard, Trever Ryen, and Marchie Murdock, but they return Hakeem Butler (who is a much better NFL prospect than Lazard), as well as Deshaunte Jones, who took a bubble screen 55 yards to the house on the only drive against South Dakota State, and a whole host of playmakers. It may take a game or two to get into rhythm, but many people believe this receiver group is better than last year.

The most important returnees on offense are Kyle Kempt and David Montgomery. If you somehow haven’t heard about Kyle Kempt yet, he was one of the primary reasons we had the year we did last year. He flat out doesn’t make mistakes, and is ultra intelligent. Matt Campbell was even quoted this week as saying “If you’re going to call anyone the offensive coordinator, you might as well give the title to Kyle.” Iowa fans will certainly remember David Montgomery, so I probably don’t need to go into him too much further.

Max: Despite a slower start, Iowa State had one of the stouter defenses in the Big 12 last season, ranking second in scoring defense and third in total defense. How does this year’s squad compare to last year’s and what can Iowa fans expect from a team that improved immensely after allowing 44 points to the Hawks last year?

Levi: As mentioned before, the defense drastically improved following the bye week before Big 12 play. Oklahoma, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Memphis were all top 20 offenses last year, and only Oklahoma State scored above their average, but even that was in a game with a ton of possessions, as Iowa State put up 42 of their own points. There’s a chance that the trend continues and this game turns into a 9-7 slugfest, but predicting the CyHawk game is a fruitless venture.

Max: Iowa’s secondary went largely untested in Week 1 against Northern Illinois, as the Huskies were disrupted over and over by Iowa’s pass rush and only collected 110 yards through the air. Will Iowa State’s offensive line be able to hold steady and provide Kyle Kempt enough time to be effective, or will the Hawkeye d-line eat again in Week 2?

Levi: That will be the key to the entire game. The Cyclones have three returning starters on the offensive line, and staff feels really good about all three. Collin Newell will be getting his first career start at center against that defensive line, so that is a major point of concern. Josh Mueller is the other new starter on the offensive line, but I think everyone feels pretty good about him.

While the offensive line failed to create much push in the running game last season, the line was actually very good in pass protection, ranking as a top-25 pass protection unit by Football Outsiders (table below). The two colored columns show the stats which are adjusted for opponent. Obviously you can see that the Cyclone offensive line was ranked a pitiful 113th in the country in run blocking (which makes David Montgomery’s stats that much more impressive), but were a stellar 22nd in pass blocking.

Offensive Line Comparison

Offense Adj. LY Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk Adj Sack Rate Rk Std. Downs Sack Rate Rk Pass. Downs Sack Rate Rk
Offense Adj. LY Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk Adj Sack Rate Rk Std. Downs Sack Rate Rk Pass. Downs Sack Rate Rk
Iowa 99.8 73 2.69 100 2.81 106 36.60% 90 61.10% 104 20.50% 86 96.7 76 6.2 90 6.5 50
Iowa State 91.3 113 2.62 107 2.01 127 32.90% 119 61.30% 100 20.20% 81 146.8 22 2.7 14 5.4 33

The line should be improved in all facets this year, so the Iowa defensive line’s impact the running game will likely be the bigger story line in this game. That’s not to say that they won’t give up a couple sacks, but most expect the pass protection to be plenty capable of slowing down those talented defensive ends.

Max: Who are some new faces (freshmen, new starters, transfers, etc.) on for Hawkeye fans to look out for on each side of the ball?

Levi: I already mentioned Collin Newell at center, but Tarique Milton and Landen Akers will be the other new faces Iowa fans will see on the field on offense. Milton is a redshirt freshman wide receiver that the coaches haven’t stopped talking about since he first got to campus over a year ago. This summer, on the podcast I host with Cole Netten and former Cyclone receiver Marchie Murdock, Marchie even mentioned him as being one of the most electric playmakers on the team. He fair caught a punt against South Dakota State, and will certainly see time in the slot on Saturday.

The Cedar Rapids native Akers is a redshirt sophomore, and is one of the fastest guys in a receiver room that has plenty of speed to burn. He showed promise last year, and is expected to be one of the guys to replace the production of Murdock and Trever Ryen. Milton and Akers have both been mentioned as excellent deep threats, so expect to see both of those guys running seam routes up the middle of the field on occassion.

On defense, three new faces will be getting starts. Mike Rose is a true freshman that has kind of come out of nowhere to challenge for the starting middle linebacker. He beat out Cedar Rapids native O’Rien Vance and redshirt junior Bobby McMillen, who’s been an effective special teams player the last couple years along with doing some spot duty for Joel Lanning, for the starting spot last Saturday. Fortunately for the Cyclone defense, Rose will be flanked by two experienced and talented linebackers in Willie Harvey and Marcel Spears Jr. Last season, Harvey burst on to the scene with crucial interceptions in consecutive games against Texas Tech and TCU, and was second on the team in tackles to Joel Lanning. Harvey has been in the program forever, and is as reliable as they come. He’s getting some serious looks as a mid-to-late round draft pick in next year’s NFL draft.

Another new starter is Greg Eisworth at safety. A junior college transfer by way of Ole Miss, Eisworth has impressed throughout the offseason after arriving last winter, and will start at the strong safety spot, replacing All-Big 12 player Kamari Cotton-Moya. While KCM was excellent in run support, he often struggled in deep pass coverage. Eisworth is much better in deep coverage, so the defense should actually see a net positive with his introduction into the lineup.

Enyi Uwazurike isn’t necessarily brand new to the lineup, but he played fairly sparingly last year as he transitioned to FBS football and had a few nagging injuries. In the few snaps he was able to take against South Dakota State, he absolutely obliterated the right tackle more often than not. Will that translate against a much more talented Iowa offensive line? Who knows. However, beyond the Iowa game and into the Big 12 season, Enyi should be one of the more productive defensive ends we’ve seen in quite awhile.

Max: Iowa State will win if...

Levi: The offensive line can limit the impact of Parker Hesse and the two Nelsons. If the Cyclones are able to get any push in the running game, David Montgomery is plenty talented enough to own the game and allow Iowa State to control the tempo. If they do that and force Iowa to keep 7 or 8 in the box, Kempt and the receivers will have a field day against a young and untested Hawkeye secondary.

I actually don’t see the Iowa offense vs. Cyclone defense as much much of a deciding factor in determining a winner. Fant will probably get his, possibly to the tune of a couple touchdowns, but if Iowa State can minimize long runs and force Iowa to throw, they will feel really good about their chances. Nate Stanley has certainly shown plenty of potential, but I don’t know if we’ve seen the consistent accuracy and decision-making to suggest that Iowa can win if he has to throw 40-50 times.

Yes, Nate Stanley threw 41 passes against Iowa State last year. However, that was the only time all season he even broke the 35 attempt mark, and is obviously a statistical outlier.

Max: Iowa State will lose if...

Levi: The players mentioned above are allowed to stuff the run game and force to us to pass our way out of third and shorts all game. If they do that, Iowa will probably have the ability to control tempo with the running game on long possessions.

Max: You asked me this question, and I’ll return the favor - do you view the added intensity between our two fan bases in the past few years as a positive or negative development in the Cy-Hawk rivalry?

Levi: I would say it’s an overall net positive. While nobody wants to see anyone getting shitty with someone else on Twitter or bringing personal attacks into the fold, I would say those types of interactions are in the vast minority. Despite the El Assico! nickname, this rivalry has been really good over the past couple decades, and has featured a bunch of close games. Rivalries are what make college football special. Do major professional sports have rivalries? Absolutely, but I would argue that they don’t have quite the same flavor that college rivalries do. That said, this rivalry between the state’s two most important athletic teams can only be made better by the increasing intensity. Plus, having both sides field nationally competitive programs makes this game far more interesting than in years past.

Max: Prediction time. Who ya got?

Levi: As mentioned before, predicting this game has typically proved to be fool’s errand. Will Iowa State’s line be good enough to get at least a little running room for David Montgomery? Will Iowa State’s defensive line bottle up the run and force Nate Stanley to win with his arm?

I predict another barn-burner similar to last year, but slightly lower scoring.

37-31 Cyclones in overtime.

Thanks to Levi for joining us. Of course, we hope the Hawkeyes pummel the Cyclones for the fourth consecutive season. Go Hawks.