Stadium: Liberty Bowl Stadium, Memphis, TN
Time: 2:30 PM CST
Steele Jantz is not starting. Shontrelle Johnson is out with a knee injury. Jake Knott is out with a shoulder injury. All three were important cogs in the wheel in Iowa State's 38-23 win over Tulsa on September 1st.
It would be easy to look at those changes alone and think that this Iowa State team faces an uphill battle to defeat Tulsa for the second time in four months, but the depth that Paul Rhoads and his staff have started to develop over the last four years is starting to shine brighter with each and every season.
Sam Richardson made his first significant appearance in relief of Jantz in a bowl clinching victory against Kansas in what happened to be Iowa State's largest margin of victory on the road since 1923. James White not only filled in admirably for Shontrelle in 2011, but has a healthy Jeff Woody to spell him and an ever improving DeVondrick Nealy ready for more carries.
The biggest miss of all is Knott though. The defense did not look worse for wear initially against Oklahoma, the Cyclones first game without Knott, but then Jansen Watson sprained his MCL. The secondary took a gigantic hit with this injury and Cliff Stokes looked like the worst cornerback at Iowa State since Rhoads inherited Kennard Banks. Then the nation's leading turnover hog Durrell Givens got hurt against Kansas and the wheels subsequently fell off late against West Virginia.
Sounds dire doesn't it? On paper it is, but the bowl practices are important for development. Rhoads spoke earlier this week that A.J. Klein will be prepared to play both his strong side position and Knott's weak side position, but it's likely that when in their base 4-3 Iowa State will have someone else at the weak side. Who developed in December? Was it Jevohn Miller? C.J. Morgan? Either way, it sounds like the staff has found a way to allow Klein to succeed and begin the difficult task of filling the void left by Knott.
When We Last Left Off...
Sam Richardson was shaky but still managed to throw for three touchdowns and run for 119 yards. Iowa State had a chance to tie West Virginia late but a Jeff Woody fumble inside the 5-yard line but an end to the comeback hopes and West Virginia escaped Riot Bowl I with a 31-24 victory.
Tulsa beat UCF for the second time in three weeks to win the Conference USA championship 33-27 in overtime. Cody Green threw for only 153 yards but Trey Watts and Alex Singleton both topped 100 yards. Trey Watts had one of the most heads up special teams plays you'll ever see to tie the game late.
Iowa State vs Tulsa: A History
With the win in September Iowa State is now 2-0 all-time against Tulsa.
A Look at Iowa State's Offense vs Tulsa
I wrote back in August that I expected Iowa State to come out early and try to establish the run against Tulsa. Tulsa obviously expected the same thing and run blitzed frequently on 1st and 2nd down. Their aggressiveness early, combined with the lack of consistency on Iowa State's front five, helped them build a 16-7 lead in the 2nd quarter.
Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and Steele Jantz then put Tulsa on their heels with a bevy of quick screens and play action passes that began to soften up the middle of the field. When Tulsa adjusted in the red zone it allowed James White and Jantz to both score on the ground and Jantz to complete an easy play action pass over the middle to Ernst Brun.
So how does Iowa State plan for a foe that is book ending their season? It starts with opening up the middle of the field. Once Iowa State had success with that against Tulsa the game completely changed. Tulsa blitzed significantly less in the 2nd half of the first game and the running lanes began to open up for the backs. Opening up the middle and keeping Tulsa on their heels should be the Cyclones' goal from the outset of the game on New Year's Eve.
Despite his performance against West Virginia Richardson is not as much of a threat to run like Jantz and will need a more creative run game to assist in softening up Tulsa. I expect to see some more variations of sweeps and quick screens to pin Tulsa back early. To counter I think Tulsa takes a page from Texas Tech and presses Iowa State early to remove the quick screens. If this happens, Iowa State will need to go to play action early and also move the pocket in hopes of causing members of Tulsa's secondary to cheat up.
Tulsa did not generate a lot of pressure with their front four in the first game but the unit has improved consistently throughout the year. Iowa State is starting Jacob Gannon at right tackle in place of injured Brayden Burris, but Gannon saw significant snaps at guard against Tulsa in the opener. Tulsa is going to blitz, it's what they do, and getting the ball out fast and accurately will be the key to stemming this pass rush.
A Look at Iowa State's Defense vs Tulsa
Despite the injuries the Iowa State defense sustained this year they will look mostly the same in the starting 11 with the exception of Jake Knott's absence. Knott was huge against the Golden Hurricane to start the season and forced a key fumble to spark the Cyclones to their 2nd quarter hot streak. As noted above, Rhoads has said someone will fill that weak side spot in traditional sets but has been coy about who that person is.
That said, Tulsa's offense is just like its defense: a known quantity. Spearheaded by a three headed rushing attack featuring Trey Watts, James Singleton, and Ja'Terian Douglas the attack is varied and explosive. Each back has topped 750 yards rushing and Singleton alone has accounted for 21 of Tulsa's 37 rushing touchdowns.
The attack was not clicking very well in Ames though. Tulsa was held to 160 yards on the ground and 77 of those came on one rush by Watts in the fourth quarter. Douglas had 55 yards on 11 carries, Singleton was only used three times for 1 yard, and Watts was held to 48 yards on nine carries if you remove his long scamper. It's easy to say that when down 31-16 that Tulsa abandoned the run but they were doing that well before Iowa State took a two score lead.
Cody Green threw 49 times for only four yards per attempt and was hardly effective moving the ball with his arm. As a matter of fact, half of Tulsa's yards came in the first half when they had the lead or the game was close. If you take out Watts' 77-yard run Tulsa only had 103 total yards in the second half. It's simple, they got down and Iowa State did enough to keep them behind the sticks and throw off their running game.
Tulsa's rushing attack has improved over their last 12 games and I think they are going to try to bruise Iowa State up the middle with Singleton and use a variety of looks to get Douglas and Watts to the outside. West Virginia did this with Tavon Austin and Shawne Alston with great success. Just like Iowa State needs to open up the middle, Tulsa needs to do the same. Without Knott and Klein maintaining gap control on the edges Iowa State will be forced to cheat some thing in order to keep the rushing attack in check and that's where Tulsa will find its advantage.
The positive thing about this is Kansas did something similar the week before West Virginia with a quarterback who was also a threat to run. After some adjustments by defensive coordinator Wally Burnham the defense imposed their will and allowed the offense to run off their 28 point second quarter.
Cody Green is not going to win many games with his arm and the return of Jansen Watson will no doubt help keep Tulsa's receiving corps in check. Iowa State's defense can focus on shutting down the run game and can do so with sound gap control and enough disruption in the middle to keep Tulsa from eating up yards and chewing up clock.
Second down is likely the most important down in each series and if they can keep Tulsa in 3rd and 5 or longer then this game will come down to Green's ability to pass and I'm not sold he can do that consistently against a Big XII defense.
A Look at Iowa State's Special Teams vs Tulsa
Iowa State struggled in the return game against Tulsa and gave them multiple short fields to work with. Edwin Arceo's leg has come on as of late and this includes not only the kicking game, but field goals as well. Kirby Van Der Kamp remains a weapon and as long as coverage remains tight, special teams will once again be a solid, if unspectacular part of the game.
WRNL Lead Pipe Prediction (3-9): Cody Green is picked off at least once.
50/50 Prediction (4-8): DeVondrick Nealy makes us forget about Shontrelle Johnson and becomes another 100 yard rusher for the Cyclones.
Reason for Impromptu Dumpster Burning (5-7): This one, despite the record, gets retired after this game so let's go out with a bang led by another stellar performance from Sam Richardson.
What We Are Drinking When We Aren't Drinking Natty (AKA Cyclone
Jukebox Beer Pick of the Week)
When in Memphis give either local brewpub Ghost River Brewing or semi-national chain Flying Saucer a try. For those staying downtown, Flying Saucer is just a block off Beale Street. If we make it to Ghost River I will be trying the 1887 IPA.
For those of you staying home for the bowl game, toast the new year and a Cyclone victory with the Champagne of Beers, Miller High Life.
A lot of press has been given to Tulsa's improvement since playing in Ames and it's undeniable. The Golden Hurricane rattled off seven straight wins after visiting Ames but lost two of their final five against Arkansas and SMU.
Conversely, a lot of press has been given to Iowa State losing five of their last seven but the improvement that was achieved has been overlooked. There's no denying the defense took a step back after injuries forced players into positions they were not ready to play, but the rushing attack has improved and I believe will continue to do so with Gannon finally playing his natural position at tackle. The Cyclones are still not a team that will light the world on fire but they are solid enough on defense, and improving enough on offense, to be dangerous to most teams. Including a 10-win conference champion.
Additionally, where the press fails to make a point is the competition these teams faced down the stretch. The average Sagarin ranking of teams that Iowa State played in November (Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and West Virginia) is 35 (Kansas drags this down with their 87th overall ranking, otherwise the average jumps to 17).
The average ranking of the Tulsa opponents in November (Arkansas, Houston, UFC, SMU): 100.
Take the strength of schedule rankings compiled by Sagarin: ISU: 6th, Tulsa: 102nd
Now you see that not all two teams are created equal. I give credit to Tulsa where it is due. They are an aggressive, well coached team who won their conference with athletes at a number of positions, but they still feasted on a conference that had seven teams finish below .500. As for the Big XII, we only have Kansas with that black eye.
Make no mistake, Iowa State will have their hands full on New Year's Eve, but just like in September this is a team that can, and will, find a way to rebound through adversity.
Winning this game is no longer about taking the next step, it's about doing what is expected of a BCS program.
Iowa State 34
PS - As always, leave your predictions below. It's been great previewing these games this season.
PPS - If you're in Memphis look for for an ISU fan with an LED belt buckle at the official Liberty Bowl tailgate. That will be me, come by and say "Hi".
PPPS - Safe travels for all, and Happy New Year.