Over the last decade and a half, many Hawkeye fans have wondered whether the Cy-Hawk football game is a lose/lose situation for the black and gold. While Iowa rarely receives any recognition or acclaim from the national media for beating the Cyclones — who, rightly or not — are seen nationally as a Big 12 bottom-feeder, a loss to the Cyclones can significantly tarnish the average football fan’s perception of the Hawkeyes. Iowa, which only has a 10-9 record against the Cyclones under Kirk Ferentz’s leadership, has fallen victim to this problem too often for many fans’ comfort.
This year is different. With statement wins against Oklahoma and TCU, a solid victory over Memphis in the Liberty Bowl, and one of the hottest up-and-coming head coaches in the nation, the 2017 Cyclones forced the national media to question its perception of the Iowa State program. Some of the factors behind Iowa State’s success will be difficult to replicate this year (they are certain to lose more than one fumble in 2018, for example), but they return a solid core of offensive players in Kyle Kempt, David Montgomery, and Hakeem Butler, as well as key members of a unit that produced the second-best scoring defense in the Big 12 in 2017. Hawkeye fans who criticize the Cy-Hawk series are finally getting what they asked for this year, though not quite in the way they wanted it; a loss to the Cyclones this season wouldn’t torpedo Iowa’s credibility, but getting a win will require Kirk Ferentz to defeat arguably the most talented Cyclone team he has ever faced.
There are a number of key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s offense exploit the 3-3-5 defense?
Hawkeye fans who avoid watching the Cyclones outside of their annual matchup may have been surprised at how well Iowa State’s defense performed in conference play relative to the Cy-Hawk game. The major reason for this mid-season defensive renaissance was their switch to the 3-3-5 defense, which allowed them to maximize their speed on the field and better match up against the pass-heavy four and five wide receiver sets that are common in the Big 12. While this lack of size creates vulnerabilities against teams with power running games, ISU’s opponents often weren’t interested in or simply weren’t capable of capitalizing on this mismatch.
Not only is Iowa capable of attacking the Cyclones defense with a power running game, but their program has decades of experience running an offense designed to do just that. With their big, aggressive offensive linemen, Iowa will seek to exploit this mismatch and dominate Iowa State at the line of scrimmage, especially if Ivory Kelly-Martin is healthy and Iowa can rotate three fresh running backs in and out of the lineup.
The effectiveness of this strategy will likely be determined by whether the Cyclones are willing or able to switch to the 4-3 defense they deployed at the beginning of 2017 (which fared very poorly against the Hawkeye offense) or whether the speed of Iowa State’s defenders can neutralize the Hawkeyes’ size advantage. Iowa State’s 3-3-5 defense often involves a fourth or fifth pass rusher coming from unexpected areas of the field, which will require discipline and communication by Iowa’s offensive line to adjust to. Iowa’s fullbacks will need to be particularly disciplined at picking up linebackers and safeties crashing towards the line of scrimmage, something they struggled with at times against Northern Illinois.
2. Are Iowa’s linebackers up to the challenge?
David Montgomery is one of the most underrated running backs in college football. He was historically good at breaking tackles, is dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield, and was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the top returning player in the entire Big 12. Iowa’s young linebackers will have their hands full trying to shut him down, something its veteran linebackers struggled to do in 2017.
Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann both flashed as potential impact players against Northern Illinois, but Iowa’s middle linebackers struggled to defend the run. NIU’s running backs averaged nearly six yards-per-carry against Iowa and frequently found the middle of the field wide open. Iowa’s interior defense should certainly be improved by the return of Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff from suspension, and another strong performance by Iowa’s defensive line can greatly reduce the burden faced by the Hawkeye linebackers. Still, Jack Hockaday and Amani Jones cannot completely misread plays the way Jones did below and expect to contain Montgomery and the Cyclone running game.
Iowa State also frequently plays with three or four wide receivers on the field, which will occasionally result in linebackers being forced to cover much faster offensive players. Iowa’s linebackers acquitted themselves well in pass coverage last week but should expect to be tested by speedy receivers like Hakeem Butler and Deshaunte Jones as Matt Campbell looks for ways to create favorable matchups for his talented pass catchers.
3. Which team can minimize its mental mistakes?
Despite the comfortable margin of victory, Iowa made several costly mental mistakes against NIU that could easily come back to bite them this Saturday. The Hawkeyes committed eight penalties, allowed a blocked punt, threw an interception into double coverage, and suffered one of the worst drops you’ll ever see from a preseason All-American.
Still, week one is usually the time for teams to shake off the rust and readjust to the speed of the game, and Iowa certainly developed much better offensive cohesion in the second half. Iowa State, on the other hand, was largely denied that luxury, playing less than five minutes before poor weather conditions forced an end to the game. The lack of game reps for Iowa State’s players could result in a greater number of penalties, miscommunications, and missed assignments that Matt Campbell and his coaching staff might have otherwise ironed-out in a relatively low-stakes game against South Dakota State, but which a talented Hawkeye team might be able to capitalize on.
4. Is this a barometer game for Iowa?
It’s irresponsible to say that any game played in week two will determine the fate of a team’s season, but no game has historically served as a better indicator for the success of an Iowa football team than the yearly Cy-Hawk match up. With the notable exception of 2002, no Kirk Ferentz-coached team that has won eight or more games has lost to Iowa State. The cause of this trend is somewhat unclear. Do the psychological effects of an early loss against a hated rival take a toll on Ferentz’s teams? Or perhaps only mediocre Hawkeye teams capable of losing to the perennially disappointing Cyclones. Would a loss to a formidable Iowa State team signal an end to this trend? The Hawkeyes are hoping they don’t have to find out.