The Kansas Jayhawks (and some of the more irrational fans) are riding high after a shocking win over TCU last Saturday, but the next opponent is going to be much harder to win against. To help us know exactly what we are up against, I reached out to Levi Stevenson over at Wide Right & Natty Lite, the SB Nation site that covers the Iowa State Cyclones.
RCT: What were the expectations for this team this year? The defense was expected to be pretty good, but there were a LOT of questions about this offense.
WRNL: Expectations for this season for most fans ranged anywhere from 6-6 on the most pessimistic end, and 9-3 on the other. Some fans backed off their predictions after the 1-3 start to the season, but the rest of us understood that having the South Dakota State game cancelled affected the beginning of the season far more than we ever expected. Essentially, this caused the team to be a week behind everybody developmentally, and we didn’t have any game tape to review going into the Iowa game. The general consensus among Cyclone fans is that we would have won the Iowa game if we were able to play South Dakota State.
For people in the Iowa State sphere, the only real question we had on offense going into the season was the offensive line. People outside the program probably saw the loss of Allen Lazard as being a potential problem, but as we’ve seen, Hakeem Butler was always more than capable of filling the void, and even surpassing Lazard as a deep threat. He still has some work to do in being as reliable as Lazard in making crucial third down catches at the sticks, but his ability to take the top off the defense has offset the net loss in short to medium routes. However, Tarique Milton and Deshaunte Jones have filled the void on short and medium routes nicely, as Tarique has caught almost 90% of his targets on the season.
Regarding the offensive line, the group is still a work in progress, but has made some significant strides throughout the season. The addition of Collin Olson to the starting lineup has really helped the offense get more push in the running game, and even get some second level blocks for David Montgomery, which inevitably leads to happy fun times for Cyclone fans. I expect them to take another step forward on Saturday.
RCT: This team flipped a switch after the loss to TCU, with huge offensive outputs in their last three games. What changed?
WRNL: Brock Purdy happened. “Pump Fake” Purdy has been the shot of adrenaline this offense needed. He can make all of the same throws Kempt and now-departed Zeb Noland could, but he brings a running element to the game that has been giving defenses fits. Suddenly, Iowa State has incorporated a plethora of new RPO concepts into the system that they just couldn’t before Purdy showed up. A secondary affect of Purdy’s running ability and his exceptional early maturity is that the offensive line isn’t required to hold a pocket forever for the quarterback to be successful, and the RPO concepts allow David to take advantage of misdirection and cutbacks, which helps the offensive line quite a bit.
RCT: While the yards per play aren’t particularly impressive, Kansas probably has one of the better defenses in the Big 12 (behind Iowa State). What about this unit concerns you going into this game?
WRNL: The fact that Kansas forces so many turnovers is a bit worrisome. I’m not concerned about David Montgomery fumbling the ball (because he never does, and the only fumble I can ever think of him giving up was in the Liberty Bowl last year, and that should have been overturned), but with any freshman quarterback comes freshman mistakes. Brock’s been pretty good about taking care of the football so far, so I do expect him to play a pretty clean game. KU gives up a ton of yards both on the ground and in the air, but their propensity for creating turnovers is a significant point of concern for a team trotting out a freshman quarterback, and I’m sure it’s something the coaching staff has been pointing out all week.
RCT: What is going to be the key matchup in this game, on both sides of the ball?
WRNL: When Iowa State is on offense, the offensive line against the Jayhawk’s front will be critical. If Iowa State continues to make strides in run blocking and is able to create space for David Montgomery, the Cyclones should see quite a bit of success on offense. If not, the game will fall more and more into the hands of Brock Purdy, which creates more opportunities for those freshman mistakes to appear.
When Kansas is on offense, the biggest matchup will be the linebackers on Pooka Williams. Iowa State boasts the best defense rush defense in the conference by a country mile, giving up just under 99 rushing yards per game on the ground (2nd is West Virginia at 132.9 yds/game). As long as Iowa State continues to stop the run and forces Peyton Bender to win the game with his arm, the Jayhawk offense may be in for a long day.
RCT: How does Iowa State deal with a player like Pooka Williams?
WRNL: My guess is that they’ll scheme for him exactly like they did Justice Hill. Keep him between the tackles and let Ray Lima, Matt Leo, and JaQuan Bailey eat space along the line to allow Willie Harvey, Marcel Spears, Mike Rose, and O’Rien Vance to shoot gaps and stuff the run. In outside run situations, Iowa State is a fortunate to have a secondary full of solid open-field tacklers that are more than willing to hit people at the line of scrimmage.
RCT: Prediction Time! Who wins this game, and how do they do it?
WRNL: To this point in the season, Iowa State has been fortunate (or not) to have already played each of the top four offenses in the country. Oklahoma had success (which they have against basically everyone). Oklahoma put up points, but most of those came on short fields, and Iowa State still limited 10 of their 16 offensive possessions to 20 yards or less. Texas Tech only ran for 30 yards on 24 carries, and the Cyclones forced Alan Bowman into 3 interceptions and a safety. West Virginia gained 152 total yards in the entire game. The Iowa State defense is white hot, and absolutely dominant when at their best. This matchup swings heavily in the Cyclone’s favor.
The matchup of KU’s ball-hawking defense against the Iowa State offense will be probably the biggest key to the game. Iowa State virtually never turns it over in the running game, but interceptions will be a concern as long as we’re rolling with an 18 year-old at quarterback. If the Cyclones are able to establish the run, control the clock, and prevent KU from creating takeaways, Iowa State will feel very good about their chances. If Kansas is able to pick off a couple passes from Brock Purdy, this game could be close all the way through.
The biggest concern for Iowa State coming into this game will undoubtedly be special teams. The last few games have been plagued with blocked kicks and punts, missed field goals and extra points, and bad punts. Kick coverage and kick return have been major bright spots, as Kene Nwangwu looks closer and closer to breaking one to the endzone every week. However, if Iowa State continues to give up field position and points on special teams, this game will get hairy pretty quickly.
With all that being said, I think most of the special teams stuff gets relatively cleaned up this week and it largely becomes a non-issue. I think the Cyclone defense will continue to excel and really limit Pooka Williams’ impact, even if he does have a good yardage total.
Brock Purdy struggled a bit against Tech’s vastly improved defense last week, but I don’t think he struggles to the same degree this week. As long as he makes sure the dudes in red are the only people catching the football, he’ll have space to throw and put up a nice yardage total.
In the end, Iowa State’s success will come down to establishing the run game. Somehow, David Montgomery was able to pile up 125 yards and a couple touchdowns last week when it seemed like he was bottled up the whole game. That type of ability to grind out yardage and keep the clock running will ultimately allow Iowa State to control the flow of the game.
Give me Iowa State 38-17.
RCT: BONUS - It seems pretty certain that Kansas is going to be looking for a new coach and staff next season. Name one guy on the staff at ISU who you think would excel on the new staff, either in their current role or in a new spot.
WRNL: Running backs coach Nate Scheelhaase would probably be a guy that would be a nice addition to Kansas’ staff. He’s from Kansas City and has a lot of recruiting ties there. He’s done an excellent job with the running backs so far, but he was a dual-threat quarterback at Illinois, which tells me that he will probably turn into a very good offensive coordinator down the road.
A big thanks to Levi for helping us out today. Don’t forget to check out the questions that I answered for him over on WRNL.