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2014 Game I: Iowa State vs North Dakota State Preview

Football is back! Mark Mangino debuts his offense and the Cyclones hope to avoid a second straight season opening loss against an FCS opponent.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

2014 Game I: Iowa State (0-0, 0-0) vs North Dakota State (0-0, 0-0)

Time: 11:00 AM CDT

Location: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA

Line: Off the Board - Some sites have ISU at -3

Television: Fox Sports 1

Radio: Cyclone Radio Network

Game Notes/Release

North Dakota State Athletics Site

Two days from now the waiting and speculating all comes to an end when Iowa State runs out of the tunnel at 11 AM to take on the three time defending FCS champion North Dakota State Bison.  Both teams are breaking in new coaches and players, but the consistency and confidence displayed by NDSU is going to be noticeable from the opening whistle.

As we all witnessed a year ago, it only takes a few missteps here and there for a fundamentally sound team to completely unwind and overrun a more athletic one.  Make no mistake, NDSU is as fundamentally sound as they come.  You don't win three championships in a row in anything without consistency, and this culture was exhibited with the promotion of Chris Klieman from defensive coordinator to head coach.  The Bison return ten starters, six on defense, and will make up for their lack of experience with a system that serves as a foundation for their success.

Iowa State on the other hand went through an off season that saw six new staff members set up shop in Ames, and none larger than offensive coordinator Mark Mangino.  Mangino's spin on this year's Cyclone offense will finally make its debut on Saturday, and no one is sure what to expect.  Is this a running team?  Is it a passing team?  Is it so perfectly split down the middle that no one can tell?  No one is for sure, but the only certain item here is that for as consistent as NDSU has been the Cyclones have been the exact opposite.  And it makes this preview one of the tougher ones I've ever written.

When We Last Left Off...

Iowa State was digging out of a 24 point deficit for its largest comeback in school history and jettisoning Courtney Messingham from the plane on the way home.

North Dakota State defeated Townson 35-7 to claim their third straight FCS national championship.

The Series

Iowa State is 1-0 all-time against NDSU with the sole match up happening in Paul Rhoads' debut in 2009.  The Cyclones rode solid performances from Austen Arnaud and Marquis Hamilton to a 34-17 victory.

Iowa State Offense

The opening weekend of football is already like Christmas morning to me.  Now imagine waiting around to take the wrapping paper off a new offense that's directed by one of the most successful assistant coaches of this generation.  What's better is no one outside of the team has any clue as to what's in Mangino's box... of plays.  Box of plays.  Get it together guys.

Does Mangino attack the middle immediately with E.J. Bibbs?  Does he sling it deep to Quenton Bundrage?  Does he set up the deep ball with screens that will also help to open up the middle of the field?  Does he ride Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy all the way to the end zone?  Does he do everything I just said in this exact order?

Now step back.  In the past two years when have we been able to say any of that with any certainty?  That's the brilliant thing about Rhoads finally giving BCS quality coaching to the offensive side of the ball.  A proven coach with a proven staff is finally calling the shots and to top it off the offense has experience at the two deep at every position.

I'll visit the technical aspects of what Iowa State will try to do Saturday in a few moments, but just look at things this way.  When you walk in to the stadium on Saturday, or flip on your TV, take a moment to realize that for the first time in a long time there is trust with the man in the (offensive) box.

North Dakota State Defense

Oof.  These guys are going to be tough.  The Ian Boyd article I linked in yesterday's Dump does a fantastic job of illustrating the Bison's physicality on defense and how they force teams to take their time moving up the field if they want to have success.  The main focus of the Bison defense is stopping the run and Boyd's breakdown illustrates that their Tampa 2 defense has so far proven somewhat impervious to the slew of spread teams popping up in college football.

A lot of that run stopping ability is predicated by having a strong line that can hold their own while allowing the outside linebackers to pinch inside and spill the play outside the tackles.  From there an experienced secondary can make the tackle.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Rhoads discussed this week about how NDSU will be bringing seven, eight, or even nine men into the box early and often in this game to stop the run and force Iowa State to pass.  In his press conference, Klieman spoke about the need to stop the run and how important it is that the Bison stay out of their Nickel package.  Staying out of that Nickel package will keep them from pulling an ever important linebacker off the field and likely means they're winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.

The Stats

There are no fantastic stats from Kirk Haaland to report yet, but I'll give this snippet about an NDSU defense that returns most of their back seven:

2nd - The final FCS ranking of the NDSU pass efficiency defense, largely predicated on stopping the run on early downs.

The Match Up

If this were a conference game, or any game against an FBS opponent, the chess match that is sure to ensue here would be a fun one to wax about.  However, we're all a little gun shy around here after last season's loss to UNI and any chance of the offense looking like Mangino left a Mess on the field is a scary proposition to think about.

NDSU is going to stack the box and hope to control Iowa State in the trenches on early downs, which will force them into the all too familiar 3rd and long situation.  In prior seasons this was an all but guaranteed strategy that would work, but with Mangino in the press box you know there's something up his sleeve to get NDSU on their heels early.

Given the Bison's dedication to stopping the run one has to think that one of two things will happen in the first few series for Iowa State.  They'll either come out working the play action game in hope of getting the linebackers to take a step or two forward, or running out of a two back system to force decisions by the outside linebackers.  Do you pinch to stop the inside run?  Or try to contain the edge if the play is a keeper with a pitch option from Richardson to the second back?

If I'm a betting man I think you see a Y Cross concept sometime in the first drive to take advantage of NDSU's MIKE dropping into his deep coverage that a Tampa 2 calls for.  Your basic Y Cross looks a lot like this:



Take Bundrage as your X, Daley as your Z, and Bibbs as your Y.  The H and F designations are meaningless here, and would be filled by Wimberly and Nealy.  This particular play doesn't call for a play action, but a simple modification would allow for it.  The point of this play though is simple:

Bibbs (Y) will run his route in front of the MIKE, who then will be pressed to continue his drop or follow Bibbs.  If he drops, Bibbs is open, if he follows, Daley (Z) is open provided he reads the defense right and breaks his route off.  If those two are adequately covered then Wimberly (H) has the option tagged to his route that allows him to read off the SAM linebacker.  If the SAM crashed on a fake, Nealy breaks outside for an easy checkdown.  If he stays at home, Nealy loops into the middle.

The concept here is simple: make multiple players on the defense make choices, and hope one of them slips up. Given the weapons the Cyclones have at their disposal on offense this should be a task they come out trying to accomplish from the get go.

For those of you hoping the screen game is gone, I can assure you that it's not.  However, there is a physicality the new coaches have brought to the offensive side and the receivers are aware that if they want the opportunity to catch the ball they have to block for their teammates first.  The screen game serves as an extension of the running game, but it's going to pull the safeties towards the line of scrimmage.  I think it gets used a few times early this game, but doesn't become a staple because the bigger focus will be on the linebackers.

Everyone knows NDSU will try to stop the run early, so you're going to see the intermediate passing game fire up in hopes of forcing those linebackers to take deeper drops, or move out of the box entirely.  Both would open up the running game, and with a young defensive line going against an experienced offensive line that's where Iowa State would do the most damage in the long run.

North Dakota State Offense

For as dedicated as their defense will be to stopping the run, their offense will be just as dedicated to establishing it.  Boyd's article goes into the details of how the Bison run "God's Play", a simple power run with a pulling guard and a number of lead blockers attacking one side of the field.  It's a staple of any power running game and the ones who run it effectively are the ones who can combine a powerful back with an equally powerful line.  Under Craig Bohl, NDSU has been that team.

Not much is expected to change with Kileman's promotion and new offensive coordinator Tim Polasek is steeped in the Bison ways after spending seven seasons on the staff before coaching for Northern Illinois in 2013.  What makes this match up so tough for the Iowa State defense are the shifts and motion that NDSU has incorporated into their play book to serve as window dressing for such a basic play.

It's not uncommon for the Bison to have a fullback split out wide before motioning into the backfield, and usually there's another shift of the tight end prior to the snap as well.  All of this is intended to force the defense to tip their hand about their intentions, and it worked against nearly every team last year.

The only thing holding this offense back from another smash mouth game is the fact there is only one returning starter on the offensive line, Joe Haeg, and he's moving from right to left tackle.  The rest of the line is comprised of three upperclassmen and a sophomore, all of whom possess great size.  But in schemes like this chemistry and experience cannot be overlooked.

Iowa State Defense

It's impossible to write this preview and not have horrific flashbacks to UNI's David Johnson stampeding over every Cyclone in last year's opener.  It becomes alarming when you realize only two starters from that defensive line return, one returning linebacker is slated to start, and the safeties are brand new.

I really wish I could sit here and blow smoke up everyone's ass and tell them how the defense is going to shut down the Bison offense.  Is it possible?  Sure, if Wally Burnham and company sell out to the run early, NDSU fails to adjust, and 3rd and long becomes the norm.  It's just not going to happen though.

The defense should be much improved from last season just by virtue of experience.  Cory Morrissey has had a great camp by all accounts, Brandon Jensen is working his way back after taking off the spring, and the young guys on the line seem to have the athletic ability to make some good plays.

Despite the youth of starting MIKE linebacker Alton Meeks there's some perceived depth in the linebacker group. Meeks slides to SAM in the 4-3 set employed against teams like NDSU and will be replaced at MIKE by either Kane Seely or JUCO Jordan Harris.  The weak side is held down by WRNL sacrificial lamb Jevohn Miller but Luke Knott was pressing him hard at the end of camp.

All of that was a long winded way of saying that the defense returns its own experience, and if they can win the battle up front they're going to be able to hold serve against a team known for breaking the spirit of others late in games.  That's not to say there won't be some mistakes, because believe me, there will be.  It's just to say that if this defense can be markedly better in the big play department than they were against UNI a year ago then a victory is all but certain.

The Stats

UNI's David Johnson gashed the Cyclone defense for 8.7 yards per carry last year.  Starting NDSU running back John Crockett averaged 6.7 yards per carry on 190 carries last season.  Iowa State's defense will have to perform very well against a rebuilt NDSU line to keep either of those stats from repeating this year.

The Match Up

Man-to-man.  That's the gameplan Burnham will deploy early against the Bison.  With NDSU focused on a power running, ball control offense Burnham is going to have to devote his front seven, and potentially a safety, to stopping the run.  That's going to leave corners Nigel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson on an island.  Receiver Zach Vraa will draw the attention of Tribune with Z receiver Carey Woods getting the attention of Richardson.  Neither man can have a big day if the Cyclones want to win.  If the passing game gets going under quarterback Carson Wentz, who is starting his first career game, then the balanced attack that undid the Cyclones against UNI will also be their undoing here.

Typically I'm all about teams breaking tendency on their first few drives of a game and then settling back into their wheelhouse once things have settled down.  NDSU won't do that though.  They're so committed to their culture of smash mouth football that they're going to line up and run right at this Iowa State defense.  If it works, great for them.  If it doesn't, they're going to keep doing it.  It's imperative that the Cyclone defense keep the running game from working early and force a new quarterback into difficult throwing situations early into his young career.

Special Teams

Freshman Collin Downing takes over the punting duties and Cole Netten returns to handle the place kicking.  Return stalwarts Nealy and Jarvis West will be fielding kicks, with West also handling punts.  This is a special teams unit that as a whole is very experienced, and rather deep.

NDSU is no slouch on special teams themselves.  Allowing only 19 yards per kick return last year, and 2.5 yards per punt return, their group returns a litany of experience at both the kicking and punting position.  Their returners might not be as dynamic, but they are solid and will test Iowa State just as much as some of the teams in the Big XII.

It wouldn't surprise me if NDSU tries to keep their kickoffs away from Nealy and West.  On average, kicker Adam Keller is only able to put the ball on the five yard line, and giving West and Nealy that short of a field to start with is only recipe for trouble.  Pooch or directional kicks will likely be the strategy the Bison employ in hopes of limiting the Cyclones' return game.

Kirby Van Der Kamp had one punt blocked in his career (2011 vs Texas) and any nerves about Collin Downing can be settled after his first punt.  As long as the group in front of him is solid we should have little concern.

WRNL Beer Pick of the Week

Early morning tailgates usually mean bloody marys for most of the people I tailgate with.  I'm not a fan personally, but whatever floats your boat.  Instead I'll be pulling out something as black as the night we'll be tailgating in.  The collaborative beer between Surly, Three Floyds, and Real Ale that's aptly named Blakkr.

Final Analysis

There are nerves to be had with this game.  How can there not be?  NDSU is one of the best programs in FCS right now and Iowa State is coming off a season where they were humiliated in front of their home crowd by a lower division "rival".  If you're not nervous about this game then you must be new to Cyclone fandom.

Yet, there's one big thing I keep coming back to.  The best team NDSU has had, potentially ever, had to use a nine minute drive with four (!) 3rd down conversions to score the eventual game winning touchdown against a K-State team that did everything it could to lose last year's game.  NDSU was a great team last year, but they struck against a K-State team known for notoriously slow starts that was breaking in a new quarterback and had their own issues on the offensive line.  NDSU took advantage of their superior size on their offensive line to bully a smaller K-State defense, and it finally came to fruition on that final drive.

You can't underestimate the value of experience in these games and I think the inexperience of NDSU's line and quarterback against the relative inexperience of the Iowa State defensive line is a wash.  Flip the script to the other side of the ball and the scales clearly tip in Iowa State's favor.  NDSU returns most of their back seven, but is breaking in their own guys on the defensive line and will be facing an offensive line that's bigger, more experienced, and hungry to make up for last season.

Couple that with one of the best offensive minds in college football sitting in the booth and you have a recipe for success.  Sam Richardson is hungry to prove that what we saw in him in 2012 was the real Sam, E.J. Bibbs is hungry to prove he's deserving of all his preseason accolades, and the running backs are hungry to impose their own will on the Bison.

It won't be smooth sailing, first games hardly ever are, but it's going to be a lot more fun than the Mess of 2013.  Stealing a line from former linebacker Jeremiah George, the only thing on a shark's mind is to eat... and these guys are hungry.

Final Score

Iowa State 31

North Dakota State 21

PS - G7. WRNL flag. You know the drill.

PPS - Predictions.  Comments.  You know that drill too.

PPPS - Everything is better when football is being played.