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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Iowa State

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Can Iowa emerge victorious in the most anticipated Cy-Hawk game in history?

NCAA Football: Indiana at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

I usually start my preview articles by providing context about how the game in question fits into the larger narrative arc of Iowa’s season. There is no need to do this when previewing the 2021 Cy-Hawk game; if you’re reading this article, you know why it matters. Iowa and Iowa State have played each other 67 times without both teams being ranked at the time of the matchup— now the Hawkeyes and Cyclones both enter tomorrow’s game ranked in the top ten. Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell is still winless against Kirk Ferentz and desperate to end the program’s losing skid. College Gameday will be posted up in Ames to cover the game for the second straight meeting. The eyes of college football will be focused on this series—and not in the interest of making fun of it this time!

The Cy-Hawk game may not impact either team’s dreams of a conference championship or a playoff berth, but make no mistake, this rivalry matters to both fanbases, this particular game more than any in years past.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:

1. Which team can establish the most consistency in its running game?

Tyler Goodson and Breece Hall are two of the best running backs in college football, but there are reasons to suspect each program might struggle to move the ball on the ground in this matchup. Iowa’s last two games against Iowa State saw the Cyclone defense successfully key in on the running game, holding the Hawkeyes to 3.4 yards and 3.3 yards per carry in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Given Spencer Petras’ historic struggles to move the ball in the passing game, Iowa should expect the Cyclones to focus heavily on stopping Tyler Goodson and an Iowa rushing attack that generated a big play on its first drive against Indiana but sputtered for much of the remaining contest when confronted with an athletic and aggressive Hoosier defense. With several talented players in the Cyclone front seven such as Will McDonald, Mike Rose, and O’Rien Vance and a 3-3-5 defense that has given Iowa fits in years past, it will be a tall task for a Hawkeye offensive line missing one of its best players in Kyler Schott to consistently create holes for Goodson and Ivory Kelly-Martin to capitalize on their speed.

Breece Hall should find running on Iowa’s defense equally daunting. The pre-season All-American is recovering from an injury and was held to only 3 yards per carry in Iowa State’s underwhelming Week One victory over UNI and will have to confront a defense that held Indiana to a mere 2.5 yards per carry last week and has held all opponents to an incredible 2.8 yards per carry since 2020. Iowa’s defensive line acquitted itself well against the Hoosiers and should be an excellent test for a good-not-great ISU front five, and its linebackers play with the perfect mix of ferocity and discipline to keep Hall bottled up inside. Hall does excel at gaining yards after broken tackles (he forced a nation-leading 63 missed tackles in 2020), but Iowa’s defense is not known for displaying poor tackling form.

Big plays in the running game will be difficult to come by, as each team allowed only one run of 30+ yards during the entirety of 2020. However, if either offensive line can get a consistent push up front and Goodson or Hall is able to average 4-5 yards per rush, it will allow that team to control the pace of the game, wear down its opponent, and avoid having to throw the ball too often into a dangerous secondary. ISU quarterback Brock Purdy can also be particularly dangerous off play action, so a strong game from Hall could create opportunities for the Cyclone passing game downfield. Both teams have built their offensive identities around a potent running game, and the team best able to put that identity into action will have a distinct advantage in this game.

2. Which version of Brock Purdy will Iowa face?

At his best, Brock Purdy is one of the most dynamic and dangerous signal callers in college football. The fourth-year starter has been brilliant in big moments against opponents like Texas, Oklahoma, and TCU, can beat defenses with both his arms and his legs, and plays with an air of confidence that can galvanize his teammates. At his worst, however, Purdy is often erratic and prone to disastrous errors in judgement. Some of these mistakes can be chalked up to irrational confidence, such as this interception he threw against Oklahoma last season (one of three from the Big 12 Championship),

while others, such as this play against TCU, can only be attributed to him legitimately forgetting how to play the game of football for one brief, hilarious moment.

Make no mistake, Purdy is more than capable of giving Iowa fits if he plays within himself and doesn’t try to force the issue too much. Purdy can scramble to avoid pressure and create first down opportunities with his legs, and his accuracy in the short-to-intermediate passing game makes him similar to many of the Cyclone quarterbacks who have dink-and-dunked the Hawkeyes to death in previous meetings. Purdy also played well against Iowa in 2019 (24-34 and one touchdown), though he did lose a fumble in the redzone and most of the Cyclones biggest pass plays of the day came when targeting inexperienced Iowa defensive backs forced into the game due to injuries. If the Hawkeyes can find a way to pressure Purdy without creating clear lanes for him to escape from the pocket, it could generate opportunities for Iowa’s ballhawking secondary, a unit that intercepted three passes against Indiana (two for touchdowns) and has more picks than any school since 2017, to do what it does best.

3. Can either team create mismatches with their tight ends?

Spencer Petras completed only five passes to his wide receivers for 38 yards against Indiana, but Iowa’s tight ends had a much larger role in the passing game, hauling in six grabs for 98 yards. It’s unclear whether the disappearing act by Iowa’s wide receivers was a coaching decision, the result of a QB clinging to his tight end security blanket against a persistent pass rush, the failure of the receivers to get open, or all of the above. However, there is reason to suspect the Hawkeye receivers might struggle against Iowa State’s formidable secondary featuring experienced cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young and versatile safety Greg Eisworth. Sam LaPorta (five catches for 83 yards against Indiana) could provide Iowa its best chance to create big plays through the air for the second week in a row, but could face tight coverage from Eisworth and Mike Rose, who intercepted five passes from his linebacker position in 2020.

Meanwhile, the Cyclone tight end duo of Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen may not be “Hockenson & Fant” level good, but they are reliable targets whose size (Kolar is 6’6”, Allen is 6’7”) make them extremely difficult to cover. Kolar missed the UNI game but is expected to play against Iowa, and Allen was strangely absent in the passing game last week. However, expect the Cyclones to feature their tight ends in a big way against Iowa in an attempt to target their linebackers in coverage. Ca$h Dane Belton may lack the size to match up against the Cyclones’ duo of giants, but 6’4” sophomore Jestin Jacobs, who linebacker coach Seth Wallace identified as the team’s best coverage linebacker, might be able to. The former 4* recruit has not gotten many reps in his young career; will he be ready to assume an essential role in shutting down the Cyclone passing game?

If both secondaries play up to their ability, it could be a tough outing for both the Cyclone and Hawkeye wide receivers. The team whose tight ends are able to carry the greatest load in the passing game may very well have an edge in what promises to be a tightly fought low-scoring affair.