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Matchup to Watch: ISU’s tight ends vs. Iowa’s linebackers

The Cyclones will deploy two tight ends early and often so the Hawkeyes will counter with an old friend... 4-3-COVER 2

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Week 1: Ty Fryfogle vs. Iowa’s corners

I’ll leave it to Leah Vann of The Gazette to recap how Iowa’s dominant performance against Ty Fryfogle went...

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s best receiver Saturday was Iowa cornerback Riley Moss.

2 reinterceptions, 85 yards, 2 TDs. Pretty good day at the office. It was so good that Riley Moss & Matt Hankins only had two tackles. Hankins had an interception of his own taken away by virtue of a roughing the passer call.

The #9 Iowa State Cyclones (1-0) return as much starting talent as any in the country. That group includes three returning All-Americans in Breece Hall, Mike Rose, & Charlie Kolar. Each of them is deserving of this space but Kolar and his tight end-mate Chase Allen offer present the biggest problem as a pair of 6’6”+ tight ends who can stretch Iowa across the field. It will even force the #10 Iowa Hawkeyes (1-0) to lean on an old friend: the 4-3 defense.

Throughout last season, the Iowa State offense leaned on Kolar, Allen, and the departed Dylan Soehner to generate positive momentum in their pass and run games. As noted ahead of the Big XII Championship Game, the versatility of Kolar & Allen allow the Cyclones to operate between 13 (1 RB, 3 TE) and 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) by splitting out as functional wide receivers.

Each of Kolar and Allen were among Iowa State’s top five receivers at 44 catches/591 yards/7 touchdowns and 19/236/2, respectively. The Cyclones used motion (second-highest rate in 2020 according to PFF) & play action/RPO (9th) to free the big guys.

Where they Cyclones miss the 270-pound Soehner is as an in-line blocker while Kolar & Allen operate all over the field. He was often a sixth offensive lineman for ISU, which allowed them to gain an edge and offer additional cutback lanes for Breece Hall. While Kolar/Allen are adequate blockers, it’s yet to be determined if ISU can generate the same push up front without him.

For the Hawkeyes, Jack Campbell and Seth Benson were the timeshare occupants of the MLB while Nick Niemann manned the outside. Campbell and Benson now serve as the primary linebackers for Iowa and offer complementary skillsets. Given Iowa has operated as a 4-2-5 defense, the matching of personnel to ISU’s two TEs would mean another linebacker on the field.

Enter Jestin Jacobs.

In very limited time, the sophomore has made his mark enough to be a talking point of Thad’s first rewatch. He offers a unique combination athleticism and length which helps make him the best coverage linebacker in Seth Wallace’s offseason estimation. From Hawk Central:

There are some things Jestin can do from a coverage standpoint that we haven’t had at (linebacker) in years past. Things we’ve normally turned over completely to our cash player. I think it’s opening doors for us defensively.

In his very welcome media availability this week, Wallace confirmed the above, saying “There’s really no secret there we’re going to have to be in a 4-3 defense from a personnel standpoint.”

Rivalry game on the road...helluva time to make one’s first start.

With Benson being an incredibly adept gap fitter (and least athletically gifted), Iowa may leverage Jacobs and Campbell in one-on-one matchups with ISU’s tight ends to allow the Hawkeye defensive line to get home to Brock Purdy.

One final area to be cognizant of is Kolar’s injury history. While it is not substantial in the season-ending sense, his absence has been felt in each of ISU’s last two season openers. Is he truly 100% going into this one? If last season is any indication, he was held under wraps for just 26 yards on 5 receptions against TCU, well below his career YPC of 13.4.

Presuming he’s 100%, the Cyclones will do their damnedest to get him the ball, especially around the red zone. He had a TD in six of ISU’s last seven games of 2020 and has 11 games where he’s caught five or more passes. He has graded out as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the country.

The Hawkeyes will counter with versatility and athleticism, and has had success in containing tight ends since 2020 - Jake Ferguson had just 3 catches for 14 yards in Iowa’s final game.

There will always be questions when somebody sees extended time for the first time, as Jacobs is likely to see on Saturday. If he is able to showcase his abilities and help shut down ISU’s tight end duo, it will be a huge factor in helping Iowa win the game.