It’s time for another KU football game, and I still haven’t recovered from the last one. Let’s hope the team doesn’t feel that way, because this week’s opponent is too good to beat on the road in a hangover game. After a 1-2 start, it looked like ISU’s struggles from last year, compounded with a number of gambling suspensions, might lead Matt Campbell’s team down the path to another losing season. Iowa State’s offense looked beyond anemic in a 10-7 week 3 loss to Ohio, and it was fair to question whether the shine had worn off on Campbell’s tenure at Iowa State, less than three years removed from a Big 12 title game appearance.
In week 4, ISU hosted Oklahoma State, and remembered how to find the end zone. OSU was dealing with some struggles of their own at that point, but after scoring a combined 20 points in their two prior games, Iowa State erupted for a 34-27 win. ISU’s identity right now is based on defense, but when you’re 1-2 coming off a loss to a MAC school, you have to be happy with the wins no matter how they come. The next week was a blowout loss to Oklahoma, but ISU picked themselves back up and has reeled off three straight wins over TCU, Cincinnati, and Baylor. While those teams aren’t exactly the cream of this year’s Big 12 crop, the ‘Clones have averaged 29 points across those games while never allowing more than 18. They currently sit in a 5-way tie for 1st in the Big 12 with a 4-1 conference record, a remarkable turnaround given what their future appeared to hold through three weeks of the season.
Though ISU is scoring points now, it’s had more to do with defense, turnovers, and field position than it has elite offense. They’ve forced 8 turnovers across the past three games, and have picked off a total of 13 passes already this year. This will be a game of strength vs strength, as ISU stuffs the run as well as anyone, with opponents averaging just 3.75 yards/carry against them, while the running game has often been the most explosive aspect of KU’s offense. They also allow just 4.79 yards/play overall, with opponents having thrown more picks than TDs against them in passing game.
If you look at ESPN/Bill Connelly’s sp+ ratings, these teams are essentially mirror images of each other. Not only do they sit side-by-side in the rankings (ISU 37th and Kansas 38th), Iowa State boasts the 10th ranked defense in the nation, with an uninspiring 82nd ranked offense. The Jayhawks come in with the 13th ranked offense, but the 88th ranked defense. ISU’s secondary has truly been outstanding in coverage, because this isn’t a team that applies much pressure on opposing QBs and backfields. Their 14 team sacks rank 100th in FBS, and they rank just 92nd in TFLs, yet their opposing QB rating of 106.7 ranks 9th in FBS. It’s tough to shut down a passing game without making QBs fear for their safety in the pocket, but Iowa State is doing exactly that.
Now that Kansas has qualified for a second straight bowl game, and propelled themselves back into the top 25 with a stunning upset, they have to face arguably their toughest opponent yet: keeping it up. It’s human nature to relax a bit after program-defining victory that seals a spot in the postseason. Iowa State is too good, especially at Jack Trice Stadium, to strut in and just expect to keep it going. Lance Leipold’s public comments since last week’s big victory have seemed aimed at keeping the team from feeling too comfortable with where they are. I don’t think the Jayhawks will come into this game unprepared, or already satisfied for the season after what they accomplished against Oklahoma, but we saw this team go on the road and simply make too many mistakes just two games ago in Stillwater, when the offense fell apart under Jason Bean in the 4th quarter, with a defense unable to make a single stop in a game where one more stand was likely all they needed in a frustrating road loss.
Is Kansas good enough to go on the road and win this game? Absolutely. Iowa State isn’t an unbeatable juggernaut by any means. However, it’s going to take consistent execution on both sides of the ball without silly mistakes. In all likelihood, Bean will be the starting QB again this week. He was instrumental to last week’s upset, but like most games where Bean is under center, he made some head-scratching mistakes that also nearly cost Kansas the victory. This Iowa State team thrives on locking down opposing receivers and jumping routes for interceptions. If Bean stays locked in and avoids those frustrating errors, KU’s chances go up substantially. If ISU gets a couple more picks and the Jayhawks’ defense doesn’t step up, it’s hard to see a road win Saturday. My guess is that ISU’s newfound ability to score will frustrate a Kansas defense that is still struggling in year 3 of this coaching regime, and is battling some injury issues as well. I also don’t see the Jayhawks’ offense racking up the yards and points they’ll need to win a Big 12 road game against a defense this disciplined.
Iowa State 31, Kansas 30