This is the 64th matchup of the Cy-Hawk series, and the stakes have never been higher. Iowa State, one of the biggest doormats in the Power Five, is playing host to College Gameday as they prepare to take on their in-state rivals, the 19th ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. With the eyes of the college football world resting on Ames, Iowa, the Cyclones are looking for a statement win to show the nation that their program has finally arrived, while the Hawkeyes hope to put little brother back in his place once and for all.
These preview articles normally focus on the X’s and O’s that will decide the contest, and there’s plenty to discuss on that front. But let’s take a moment to acknowledge a few of the storylines that make this particular Cy-Hawk contest so intriguing and difficult to predict:
· Iowa State inexplicably had a bye during week two, which means their only game of the season was a triple overtime victory over UNI in which they looked less than impressive. Sure, UNI, has taken some good teams to the wire during season openers, but how will Iowa State respond mentally to a performance so poor that it cost them their preseason Top 25 ranking?
· And speaking of Iowa State’s bye, how will having a week off before the Iowa game impact the Cyclones’ preparation? This early in the season, is it more important to have two weeks to prepare to play a talented team, or to have an extra 40 minutes of gameplay under your belt to help the team establish its rhythm? Iowa’s offense is normally so predictable that opponents need little time to scheme against it, but with Iowa leaning on the passing game more than it has in recent years, does Iowa State benefit from having an extra week to study Nate Stanley’s game film?
· Is Iowa at risk of getting complacent having won four games in a row against the Cyclones? Or is Matt Campbell, who has never beaten the Hawkeyes, at risk of psyching himself out and overthinking things during his extra week of preparation? Unlike previous coaches, Matt Campbell has tried to treat the yearly matchup against Iowa like any other game on the Cyclones’ schedule. But he HAS to be feeling the pressure to win this one. What happens to his program if Iowa wins a fifth straight game? Does losing the Cy-Hawk series start to become something pathological?
· How will these Cyclone players, who have NEVER played a home game with the kind of expectations they’ll be confronted with Saturday afternoon, respond to the pressure of facing their rival in front of God, country, and Lee Corso? And for that matter, how will Iowa respond? These players have played in hostile road environments before, but their recent trips to Madison and Happy Valley haven’t exactly gone smoothly.
· If Iowa does lose, what does that mean for the rest of the season? Iowa’s Big Ten road schedule is brutal, and aside from the 2002 team, no Kirk Ferentz-led Hawkeye squad who has lost to Iowa State has won more than seven games. Will an early season loss torpedo this team’s ambitions of a Big Ten West title?
The human drama alone makes this a much-watch game, but the football itself should be plenty dramatic as well. Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s defense get the better of Brock Purdy?
The Cyclones are about to start their fifth different quarterback against the Hawkeyes in as many years, but arguably none of them have been as dangerous as their current QB, Brock Purdy. Purdy possesses many of the tools that have allowed opposing quarterbacks to give Iowa defenses fits in years past. He has the patience to take what the defense gives him and steadily advance the ball against a bend-don’t-break scheme, the mobility to avoid a pass rush, and the big play potential to burn a defense that isn’t able to play assignment football for the duration of an extended play. In the right light, Purdy appears to have all the qualities that players like Dan Persa, Trace McSorley, and Bret Meyer used to slowly chip away at Iowa’s defenses and the patience of its fans.
Iowa’s defense will have its hands full containing Purdy, but then again Iowa State’s offensive line should also have its hands full containing AJ Epenesa, who exploded last week after a quiet season opener and who absolutely feasted on the Iowa State offensive line last year.
To make matters worse, Iowa State’s offensive line is in flux due to the injury of starting center Colin Newell. This might force left tackle Julian Good-Jones to fill Newell’s slot and right guard Josh Knipfel, a player who has LITERALLY NEVER PLAYED TACKLE BEFORE, to protect Purdy’s blindside. Add in Iowa State’s occasional struggles running the ball against UNI (the Clones averaged only 4.1 yards-per-carry against the FCS opponent) and Purdy may end up shouldering most of the offensive burden in this game. If Iowa’s secondary can play with the level of discipline it showed against Rutgers while forcing opposing quarterbacks to go 10/27 in the air for 47 yards and two interceptions, it can severely limit Purdy’s ability to make a positive impact on the game.
2. Can Iowa’s wide receivers win their matchups against Iowa State’s defensive backs?
Iowa might have its deepest wide receiving corps in recent memory. Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Oliver Martin have the top-end speed to burn defenses deep, Brandon Smith is a big physical target whose vertical leap makes him a deadly red zone weapon, and freshmen Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini have shown flashes of explosive play from the slot receiver position.
The Hawkeye receivers will face their biggest test of the young season this week. Iowa State’s 3-3-5 scheme ensures that the Cyclones will have enough defensive backs on the field to comfortably match up against Iowa’s pass catchers even when they go four or five wide, and their experience playing against pass-happy Big Twelve offenses makes it unlikely that they will be phased by Iowa’s passing game. The unit is led by junior Greg Eisworth, a do-everything hybrid defensive back who was named first-team All-Big Twelve last season.
Still, Iowa’s receivers should have opportunities to make plays in the passing game. Cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young are talented but somewhat inexperienced, and Iowa State’s defensive backs occasionally took very poor pursuit angles against UNI which allowed the Panthers to gain additional yards after the catch. Such a mistake could be fatal against a player with Smith-Marsette’s speed and may be something to watch for throughout the game. The Cyclones surrendered 228 passing yards to UNI’s freshman quarterback Will McElvain, and if Nate Stanley can connect on a few deep shots and get his receivers the ball in space, the Hawkeyes should be able to exceed that production on Saturday.
3. Can Iowa establish the run early?
As impactful as Eisworth is in the Cyclone secondary, the strength of the Iowa State defense lies in its front six. The Cyclones boast arguably the deepest and most athletic group of linemen and linebackers that Ferentz has faced during previous matchups in this series and have legitimate NFL prospects in players such as Ray Lima, Marcel Spears, and JaQuan Bailey. Iowa State was particularly salty in stopping the run last season. The 2018 Cyclones easily ranked first in their conference in rushing yards allowed (115 per game) and held the Hawkeyes to a measly 2.9 yards per carry last year. The Clones don’t appear to have lost a step this year, holding UNI to under 2.0 yards per touch on the ground.
Iowa’s running game has shown real signs of improvement this year, which is particularly encouraging considering the absence of Alaric Jackson due to injury. But while the Hawkeyes managed to overpower the Scarlet Knights at the line of scrimmage during the second half, the Iowa running game struggled through much of the early portions of the contest. ISU’s 3-3-5 defense should be susceptible to the Hawkeyes’ power running game due to its lack of size up front, but the skill of their front six combined with the ability of Greg Eisworth to assist in run support should be enough to give Iowa’s running backs and its patchwork offensive line some difficulties.
As decorated a passer as Stanley is, Iowa State can severely limit the effectiveness of Iowa’s offense if it can eliminate the threat of the run game and make the Hawkeye attack one-dimensional. This game could be a significant test in the growth of Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young, as their ability to perform well against a terrific Iowa State run defense would not only improve Iowa’s chances of retaining the Cy-Hawk trophy, but would also show how far they’ve progressed since last season. Keep an eye out for Tyler Goodson as a potential X-factor; true freshman or not, his remarkable speed and agility are unmatched by any of his backfield mates, and he could provide the change of pace or explosive play needed to put the Cyclone defense on its heels.
The Cy-Hawk game matters every year to the people of Iowa. This time it matters to the nation. Iowa State will certainly enjoy its time in the spotlight, but the national recognition that comes with winning a game of this magnitude is Iowa’s for the taking.