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2021 opponent preview: Iowa State Cyclones

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Iowa State had a banner year in 2020 - will they be able to follow it up?

Syndication: Arizona Republic Patrick Breen/The Republic via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Iowa State Cyclones bounced back from their season-opening loss against Louisiana to steamroll their way to a Big 12 title game appearance. One might chafe at the use of “steamroll” but really, that’s as good a way to describe the way their five game winning streak which saw them take out Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State, Texas, & West Virginia by an average margin of 40 to 9.8.

The excitement briefly stopped when Oklahoma avenged their early-season loss to the Cyclones by winning the conference championship game, 27-21. In a weird bit of math held by the record books (cfb-ref), the Cyclones finished second despite having the best win percentage. OK then.

Their season was capped with a Fiesta Bowl victory over fake Pac-12 champion, Oregon, in a way which no doubt makes Iowa fans jealous since the Hawks were not able to beat the fake Pac-12 champion Ducks in March Madness.

From last year’s team, the bring back a borderline incredible amount of production due to the free year granted from the pandemic, which is a fact which gets overlooked in my “Three Guys” bias.

Connelly defines ISU as the team returning the 4th most production at 88%. It’s 94% for offense (biggest noted departures were backups at TE & RB - Dylan Soehner & Kene Nwangwu - who combined for 556 yards from scrimmage) & 81% for defense. Perhaps the biggest loss is Nwangwu in the kick return game, as we all know how well special teams have treated Iowa State.

That’s part of what helped ISU open as 4.5-point favorites (and I believe trend higher): they’re among the most known quantities heading into this season and are among the nation’s elite when comping who’s back.

ISU schedule ahead of Iowa

9/4: v. Northern Iowa

UNI has given ISU fits in the past and could very well give them fits again this season. But that would be a silly thing to expect given the trajectory of the ‘clones and UNI’s underwhelming 3-4 spring season.

Three guys

Breece Hall (RB, 6’1”, 215 lbs, Jr):

There is a reason Hall came in 6th in Heisman voting with that being too low. He was simply as good as it got, this side of Tuscaloosa, as a running back. He led the country with 1572 yards and was second in rushing touchdowns at 21. His 5.6 yards/carry was the ninth most among 260 RBs with 150+ carries and oh yeah, he led the country in those (278) as well. For good measure, he eclipsed 100 yards in 9 of ISU’s 12 games.

Iowa State uses him in their shotgun & pistol sets but is not afraid to move Brock Purdy under center to give Hall more traditional looks. If there’s one ding on his game, it’s his lack of production in the passing game (23 receptions for 180 yards) but the numbers show he can - he just didn’t need to.

One thing which sticks out from the above highlight package is: gone are the days where ISU running backs have their highlight reels chock full of 5 yard runs which feel like 10 or 15 by virtue of shirking defenders in the backfield.

Charlie Kolar (TE, 6’6”, 257 lbs, RS Sr): The John Mackey award finalist led Big 12 tight ends in every category at 44 catches, 591 yards, & 7 touchdowns. Breezing through his Twitter highlights, and there is a pretty consistent theme: Kolar overpowers his defender and makes the grab.

His sophomore-year reel reveals a more diverse skillset - great route running, dependable hands, varied use (particularly in the RPO game). His versatility can put Iowa’s defense given their likelihood to match personnel - a second tight end could force a slower linebacker on Kolar but going three-plus wide may allow his strength to beat a defensive back. No matter who he faces, his height trumps just about any defender Iowa can throw at him.

Jack Campbell (6’5”, 243 lbs) could prove useful.

Mike Rose (LB, 6’4”, 245 lbs, Sr): In Rose’s first two seasons, he put up impressive numbers at 75+ tackles, 9+ tackles for loss, and four total sacks before absolutely exploding on the scene last season. He posted 99 tackles, five interceptions, and 10.5 tackles for loss en route to conference defensive player of the year. The interceptions led the Big 12 & was second nationally.

He’s a sideline-to-sideline player and willing to do the little things to help his team win. Even in a team where tons of production returns, his efforts stick out.

Assorted Commentary

Campbell-Ferentz V - can the ISU head coach finally get over the hump?

An ever-so-brief accounting of Campbell’s record at ISU shows the Hawkeyes are the only annual matchup he has yet to win in five years on the job. It is easy to sell that deficiency as a fair trade off to the 24-13 Big 12 record he’s posted since 2017 but surely there is some angst simmering at his inability to beat the in state rivals??

On the flipside, Ferentz has gone 19-4 in rivalry games since 2015 which is the defining statistic of late state Kirk Ferentz and a flip from the prior six (8-12). It’s clear those four games have added emphasis for the Hawkeyes every season and I suspect a similar focus in 2021.

What does Spencer Petras’ first road start in front of fans look like?

I don’t know! I suspect it will be bad, and maybe ugly, but you know what, as Ben posited in last week’s Pants Party...maybe Petras is better with butts in seats, whether it’s at home or on the road. Now, I am not saying I expect a 2017 redux which goosed everybody’s expectations of what Nate Stanley could be but that type of performance would certainly make a blogger or two eat his words.

Can ISU “out Iowa” Iowa?

The last two times these teams faced off, the winning score was in the teens. They were some combination of classic “bend but don’t break,” elite special teams, and timely offense for the Hawkeyes. Perhaps there is no better time for ISU to pull off that gameplan than now.

Or does ISU try to go the other way and rev this game into ludicrous speed? As an Iowa fan, that would be the game plan that scares me. With an unproven offense and defense lacking elite pass rushers, a race to thirty seems like the best method to victory for ISU.

How does Iowa’s offensive line hold up?

The Hawks are getting trial by fire up front in these first two games but ISU can exploit any leaks Iowa show in the line against Indiana. The Cyclones notched 29 sacks last season and replace JaQuan Bailey up front with the nation’s leading sacker in Will McDonald.

Further, the Hawkeyes’ season feels increasingly tied to Tyler Goodson’s ability to carry games. If the offensive line struggles to create any running lanes for the junior back, it will open Iowa up to losses on the margins of time of possession (ISU was 7th among Power 5 teams) and field position. Iowa may be able to manage the latter - they ranked 2nd last season in punting efficiency - but Breece Hall doesn’t get easier to tackle as the game goes on.

The PFF thing.

I am skeptical about these rankings but if there is one thing in Iowa’s favor, it’s that they play zero teams ranked ahead of them (just four between 14 & 24) while ISU plays four ranked above them. So maybe it’s already accounting for that schedule which tilts against ISU and for Iowa?