Time: 7:00 PM CDT
Location: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA
Line: Iowa State -9.5
Television: Cyclones.TV - Information here
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network - Affiliate information here
Paul Rhoads enters his fifth season at the helm of Iowa State by facing an opponent he's beaten soundly, nearly lost to, and will see five times in the next seven years: the Northern Iowa Panthers. The UNI game always puts things in a pickle for Iowa State. As a I-AA school (remember, FBS and FCS do not exist in this author's vocabulary) they should never sniff a legitimate win over a Big XII opponent. On the other hand, UNI is known for giving its best shot to whatever BCS opponent is on the docket for that season, and unfortunately in 2007 they showed us just how terrible of a coach Gene Chizik really was.
Yet Jamie Pollard continues to schedule a school that a victory over is expected but the potential to lose is much higher than any other I-AA opponent that could be scheduled. This is a no win situation for Iowa State (except at the gate) even if they were to win soundly. It's proof that the Panther fans are really wearing black and gold under their shirts when, in the event of a blowout, they say "you're supposed to win," classic Hawkeye response. I digress. Let's move on to the preview where I give you fair warning that there is just as much unit by unit preview as there is actual breakdown of the game on Saturday.
When We Last Left Off...
The proverbial wheels fell off a defense that was hanging by a thread and Iowa State fell 31-17 to a Tulsa team led by a merciless rushing attack in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
UNI closed out Senior Night with a 38-13 win over Missouri State but failed to make the I-AA playoffs with a 5-6 record. Sawyer Kollmorgen passed for 265 yards and two touchdowns while running back David Johnson rushed for 116 yards, two rushing touchdowns, and tacked on another through the air.
Iowa State leads the series 20-4-3 with the last loss coming in 2007. UNI head coach Mark Farley is 1-5 all-time against the Cyclones.
Last Five Games
2011: Iowa State 20, UNI 19
2010: Iowa State 27, UNI 0
2007: UNI 24, Iowa State 13
2006: Iowa State 28, UNI 27
2004: Iowa State 23, UNI 0
Blowouts don't often happen in this series and even the shutouts in 2010 and 2004 aren't indicative of how the game actually played out. The last time Iowa State had a victory that didn't leave some doubt in the minds of fans watching was a 45-0 shellacking in 2001 where Seneca Wallace made his Cyclone debut and the defense intercepted six(!) passes.
Iowa State Offense
Much adieu has been made about the obvious changes to the offense with Pistol offense guru Chris Klenakis brought in to coach the offensive line and Sam Richardson finally settling in as the first undisputed starter at quarterback since Austen Arnaud in 2010. There are also the other storylines of the loaded backfield with three seniors, an up and coming back DeVondrick Nealy and JUCO All-American Aaron Wimberly all pressing for playing time, and finally the youth at wide receiver. All of these storylines are well and good but the main focus should be the first, and how it can impact the program for years to come.
Games are won and lost in the trenches in all levels of football and the Cyclones have been no exception to this. The struggles to run the ball last year are well documented. The zone read didn't work as teams often scraped and cheated to one side when a single back was in the backfield. Only when the offense ran out of the Pistol or used two backs did the rushing attack fly. Yet those efforts were not enough to overcome an offensive line that was physically and mentally outmatched at the point of attack.
Enter Chris Klenakis. Known as a fiery coach who preaches work ethic and technique he's had success at stops at Nevada and Arkansas before bringing his talents to Ames this past spring. Kleankis reintroduced blocking sleds to the offensive line's practice. He preaches a blue collar mentality and to be meaner than the guy across from you. Needless to say it's shaken up the established order.
Gone are the Left/Right designations of the line and they're replaced by Quick/Strong. A simple change, but as Rhoads said in his press conference Monday it has become more about technique than stance. The physical traits of those on the line match up more with the scheme and you can see this with the bump of Ethan Tuftee to back up with Jamison Lalk taking the starting SG spot. Rhoads mentioned Tuftee was banged up in the fall, but make no mistake about this. We're talking about a senior with 23 career starts and this off season's strongest man being bumped to a backup role. Klenakis means business and if his unit is going to play for him they need to mean business as well. When you think of an offensive line coach you think of an ass kicker, and dammit his offensive line better be a group of them too.
Running backs rush for a lot of yards with great road pavers in front of them and great college quarterbacks have existed when protected by a human Berlin Wall (e.g., Ken Dorsey, Graham Harrell, Brandon Weeden). So you plug capable guys back there in those spots and let them do their work knowing the offensive line will do theirs.
The running backs are known commodities. It's a great problem to have when the fan base debates the merits of James White and Shontrelle Johnson but both are in the backfield and both have had their moments to shine. You enter new guys like Nealy and Wimberly and suddenly you have fresh legs running behind bulldozers.
Sam Richardson is still a question mark but last year he showed great touch, timing, and knowledge in his three games and had an 8 touchdown to 1 interception ratio. It's hard to know who the "real" Sam Richardson is as he lit up a poor Kansas defense, struggled in the wind against West Virginia, and had the flu against Tulsa but when I watch him I see a quarterback in an ISU uniform with the most moxie since Sage Rosenfels. Richardson gained more knowledge of the scheme this offseason, and most importantly, led the offense in the summer workouts. He looked the part last year, sounded the part this summer, and hopefully delivers it this fall.
When looking at the depth chart for UNI the first thing that immediately jumps out is their relative lack of size in the middle. Only DT Xavier Williams tops 300 pounds and the next heaviest lineman is back up Breion Creer at 255 pounds. There is length though. The shortest defensive lineman is only 6'2". What they lack in width they apparently make up for in length, and possibly speed.
The rest of the defense is fairly long as well. All four listed cornerbacks are 5'10" or taller and all four safeties are around the 6' mark. Competing with the Cyclones on size alone should not be a problem for UNI but this will all come down to how fast they can play and whether or not the heat starts to affect their play making ability and depth.
This was a defense that rallied late last year in UNI's three game winning streak to close the season and returns six starters, including three on the defensive line. They finished the season 27th in scoring defense at 21.4 points per game and that was due in large part to shutting down the run. What the team lacks in depth they make up for in understanding of scheme and experience.
The Match Up
Iowa State will try to establish the run, and UNI will try to stop it. It sounds cliche to say that but this is the bread and butter of both team's philosophies. Rhoads still wants to run for 200 yards per game with his stable of backs and UNI is old school in their thinking that if you stop the run you win a lot of football games. Iowa State returns 70 starts on the offensive line, good enough for 53rd in D-I, but that number drops to 47 with Ethan Tuftee being shuffled to a back up role. Of those 47 starts over half belong to Junior Center Tom Farniok.
We will see strength on strength in the trenches for this game and UNI did a great job in 2011 plugging gaps and keeping Iowa State from breaking off long runs. With the change to the Pistol formation it will be interesting to see how an experienced front seven will handle the myriad of choices they will see coming at them in the running game.
If Iowa State can't run this game will be incredibly difficult. UNI got away with twists and stunts in 2011 due to the inability to run and it caused fits for Steele Jantz in his first career start. The difference here will be if Richardson can stay calm and collected and take the yards that are given to him. UNI isn't made up of world beaters on defense and while they may be aggressive up front they're going to have to play bend but don't break in the back. Yards will be available through the air, but it will just be a matter of finding them.
The length of Iowa State's young receivers will be tested going against a long secondary so I would expect to see quick hitting passes to hopefully soften up the defense for both the run and the eventual pass over the top.
X-Factor: Tight Ends. Ernst Brun created match up problems last year and now E.J. Bibbs and Ben Boesen will help continue that trend with their size. There is not a player on UNI's team that can come close to matching Bruns' size and physicality so involving him early will not only set up Richardson with some confidence, but possibly lead to the big play as well.
Iowa State Defense
Gone are Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. So are Jake McDonough and Jeremy Reeves. It’s been a long offseason hearing about all of the starts and accolades that are not returning and very little press up until now has been given to the possibility there may be more talent on the sidelines than in years past.
It wasn’t until Monday’s press conference when Rhoads said that this team is more athletic and faster than the 2009 squad he’s inherited. Marry that to the comments throughout fall camp that he’d rather have a young, athletic squad than an old, slow squad and you start to get the sense that Rhoads and defensive magician Wally Burnham are more comfortable with this defense than the fans are. If the defense is to have success on Saturday, and the entire season, the youth will have to take that talent and play well beyond their years.
Just like on offense, this game is going to be won and lost in the trenches for Iowa State’s defense. Newcomer Rodney Coe and converted defensive end David Irving add some intrigue to the defensive tackles, and nose guard Brandon Jensen is quicker off the ball and playing with better pad level than Jake McDonough was at this point in his career. For the first time in a long time Iowa State finally has players on the defensive line that look like they belong in the Big XII and ideally that translates into production. Cory Morrissey and Nick Kron both top 240 pounds at the defensive end spot and Kron is the shortest at 6’2". Willie Scott starts at the other end spot at 6’2", 224 but is backed up by a pair of youngsters in Mitchell Meyers and Devin Lemke, both are 6’4". Inside, Coe, Jensen, and Walter Woods top the scale at 300 pounds. Irving and Austin Krick check in around 275 pounds. Not only is the size there but the depth will be as well. It’s possible that Iowa State plays 10 or more defensive linemen against UNI on Saturday, and in 90+ degree heat it will almost be mandatory.
An above average effort by the big guys up front should help keep Jeremiah George and company clean at linebacker. George is going to get his stats and may even raise the play of the defense but this thin group is going to be defined by how Jared Brackets (SLB), Jevohn Miller (WLB), and Luke Knott (WLB) play and develop. If the young linebackers can take the pressure off George and make plays in space then a weak unit may suddenly become a strength of the defense.
The secondary is both experienced and talented. Deon Broomfield and Jacques Washington provide great safety valves for the defense but you hope neither approach 100 tackles this year. Jansen Watson held off the other Sam Richardson to retain his starting spot at cornerback, and redshirt freshman Charlie Rodgers takes over for Jeremy Reeves on the opposite side. Rodgers will likely slide inside for Nickel situations leaving that spot to be held down by either Richardson or Ken Lynn. Just like the front seven, there is talent here but some spots are ripe with inexperience.
Rhoads respects returning running back David Johnson and quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. Johnson hurt the Cyclones in 2011 with two touchdowns, including a momentum snatching 80-yard touchdown reception on a wheel route. Johnson is legit with his size (6'3", 214 lbs) and speed. Rhoads commented that Iowa State was interested in him coming out of high school and he certainly has the ability to have played at the D-I level.
Johnson will be running behind a line that again is long, but not incredibly heavy. Only one starter tops 300 pounds but the shortest lineman is 6'3". Similar to Iowa State's line you imagine their lack of girth will be made up with their speed and ability to get outside/to the second level quickly. Their length will help in pass protection and give Kollmorgen time to find his receivers. Kollmorgen finished 25th in pass efficiency last year and was named co-National Freshman of the Year by College Football Performance and the MVFC Newcomer and Freshman of the Year. Kollmorgen could present a legitimate passing threat if Iowa State allows Johnson to get going on the ground, but fortunately he's not much of a threat to run after netting only 67 yards on 51 attempts last season (including sacks).
The receiving corps is young and rather inexperienced with Chad Owens (5'11", 183 lbs, Junior) the only receiver to notch over 100 yards receiving last season. Johnson is their biggest threat outside of that and it will not be surprising to see him split out wide on occasion to present a different look for Iowa State.
The Match Up
Trench warfare is the theme here again. I-AA schools often need to shorten the game to compete with their opponents and the situation is no different here. Johnson shows up big for games against I-A schools and UNI is going to put a lot of effort into establishing his presence early and often. The battle on the edge I have to give to UNI based on their length but in the middle I have a hard time believing they'll be able to consistently handle a combination of Irving, Coe, and Jensen. The size of those three is going to present a whole host of problems in the middle and if they can consistently fill their gaps and keep the linebackers clean it will be hard for UNI to establish the run.
Kollmorgen is going to be solid as always but Wally Burnham excels at taking away one facet of the game when he has to. That facet is going to be the running game and Johnson. He isn't likely to surprise this time around as the focus will be on him by both sides and this could pin a lot of the responsibility for moving the ball on Kollmorgen. This strategy has worked well for Iowa State in the Big XII and there's little reason to believe a I-AA quarterback, no matter how good he is, can carry his team to victory by throwing 40 times a game. UNI has to have a balanced attack to win and Burnham will do his part to take it away, and this may mean eight in the box on early run downs and short yardage situations.
Stacking the box will lead to the secondary being on islands but seeing as only one UNI receiver returns legitimate experience this doesn't seem like such a big deal. Iowa State is finally gaining some length in the secondary and if they begin to bully UNI's receivers it could spell doom for any hope of UNI moving the ball in large chunks down the field.
This early in the season I don't see a lot of blitzes coming from Burnham except on run downs if the defensive line isn't holding their own. He'll be content to let UNI try to move the chains through the air and find holes in the zone to do it.
X-Factor: Outside Linebackers. Part of the idea of taking away the run game will be the defensive line keeping the linebackers clean. Even if they do that the linebackers will still need to make plays and it will be up to Jevohn Miller to show us his progress, and Jared Brackens to use his speed. Given the relative youth up front these linebackers will be pressed hard to mind their own gaps and keep Johnson from wiggling loose. If they have a strong start to the game it will set the tone the rest of the way.
Special teams really, really excite me this year. Quenton Bundrage and Albert Gary are holding down the kick returning spots after Gary had a solid year returning last year. Bundrage is one of the most explosive players on the team, and before you freak out that our #1 receiver is returning kicks remember that Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon both returned kicks for Oklahoma State and Sammy Watkins still does for Clemson. Hopefully backing them up with be purported fastest guy on the team Aaron Wimberly.
Edwin Arceo and Cole Netten are still competing for the kicking job but given Arceo's strong finish to last season I think wherever Rhoads settles will be good for the team. Knowing Rhoads though expect to see both players kick field goals at some point this year.
Then of course there's #KVDK4RAY. What else can we really say?
UNI didn't publish who their returners are, but really all I'm looking for here is a kicker on our own end that can reach deep into the end zone on kickoffs and the punt coverage team to continue their solid performance under Rhoads.
Sorry folks, but no more dumpster burning predictions. Those never really worked out for me in the past and always boiled down to "we better win" or "I'll be pissed if we lose".
Solid, but Not Quite a Lock Prediction: A few horses from the running back stable reach the end zone. At least one for White, possibly one or more for a combo of Shontrelle, Woody, or Wimberly.
Would Love to See, And Might: A litany of running plays to start. Like 10. Don't think 10 will happen but if ISU runs on 7 of its first 10 plays I wouldn't be shocked.
Would Love to See, But Won't: A blowout. Would love to see a 45-0 shellacking but Mark Farley always has this UNI team geared up for this game and their talent is far from bad.
WRNL Beer Pick of the Week
Other than starting with some Natty Light to kick off the season some of us will be drinking ZeeLander IPA from Decorah, Iowa based brewery Toppling Goliath.
There are three keys to a I-AA team hanging with, and eventually upsetting a I-A squad:
1. Shorten the game
2. Strong line play
3. Dynamic play maker, preferably quarterback, but a "do it all" type will work
UNI is going to attempt to make all three happen on Saturday. David Johnson covers the third requirement and UNI will ride him as far as he will go by using him to accomplish the first requirement. How far he goes all depends on the second requirement. If UNI had a legitimate rushing quarterback I would be far more concerned about this game, but while Kollmorgen appears to be mobile enough to run it just isn't his style. So Johnson becomes the key.
Johnson will run the ball, catch balls out of the backfield, and even likely line up outside. What matters here is Iowa State to not get flustered in the front seven and let Johnson get away with doing too much. The youth up front is going to have to combat the length and experience up front for UNI and I think we see more good than bad here. It's just too hard to believe Irving and Jensen won't be effective in the middle and if the middle is controlled suddenly Johnson is spending more time finding a hole than hitting it.
On the defensive side UNI will try to utilize their experience on the line against an Iowa State offensive line that has switched schemes. It is likely to work in stretches as UNI always puts out a capable and aggressive defensive line but I think the depth in the trenches is too much for UNI to handle. If Lalk struggles at guard you have experienced guard Tuftee to come in and help him up. The coaches are high on Brock Dagel as well and it's possible you see eight offensive linemen take meaningful snaps on Saturday. That type of depth goes a long way on a 90 degree night.
Iowa State will try to run the ball just as much as UNI but they have two things in their favor that UNI doesn't: tempo and depth. Iowa State can go up tempo and keep running the ball, but they can do it with five different backs and won't rely on one workhorse to carry the load. Eventually those runs, and short passes to augment them, will allow them to take the top off and get someone like Bundrage or Tad Ecby loose deep. And as we saw last year, Richardson seems to throw a pretty solid deep ball.
Overall I think the theme of the day is this: UNI is solid, but lacks depth. The depth is going to be necessary on one of the hottest days of the year, and for that Iowa State will emerge victorious.
Iowa State 34
PS - As always, leave your predictions below
PPS - And come see us in G7 this weekend. We'll be under the cardinal and gold WRNL flag.