2014 Game IV: Iowa State (1-2, 0-1) vs Baylor (3-0, 0-0)
Time: 7:20 PM
Location: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, IA
Line: Baylor -23.5
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Baylor SBN Site: Our Daily Bears
Baylor is a Top 10 team and they're coming to Ames. Two programs that hired new head coaches in the past decade - Briles came to Baylor in 2008 - have taken different paths to success with the Bears having by far the most success in the conference, and nationally.
Baylor is once again riding high this year with an offense that sets a torrid pace and a defense that seems to not have missed much of a step despite losing significant contributors from last season.
Iowa State, on the other hand, is still mired in figuring out who they want to be. A comeback win over in-state rival Iowa helped get the Cyclones out of the winless hole, but improvement has to be continued to be seen in order for hope for the future to be restored. If Baylor's trajectory has been akin to a rocket being shot in to space; then Iowa State's has been akin to a Ford Escort slowly climbing Mount Everest.
When We Last Left Off...
DeVondrick Nealy wheeled his way in to the end zone, Sam Richardson did his best (good) Steele Jantz impersonation, and the Cyclones brought home the Cy-Hawk Trophy after a last second Cole Netten field goal sealed a 20-17 victory in Iowa City.
Baylor went to Buffalo, put up 35 points before halftime, went for it three times on fourth down, converted all three attempts, and came away with a 63-21 victory that wasn't even that close.
The all-time series between Iowa State and Baylor is tied at six wins apiece. Iowa State is 4-2 in Jack Trice against Baylor, and only one of those losses came when Baylor was part of the Big XII (2005... let's not talk about it). We know what happened last year, and it was historically bad.
Iowa State Offense
This is probably the simplest game plan to break down ahead of time because Iowa State is going to do their best Kansas State impersonation and keep the ball out of Baylor's hands. Something that became readily apparent early in the game against Iowa was that the best way to defend Iowa State's defense was to keep them off the field and keep them fresh.
Iowa may have won the time of possession battle by seven minutes, but it was Iowa State who controlled the clock in the second half. We all know about the two fourth quarter drives by the Cyclones (10 plays, 92 yards, 4:00, and a Nealy touchdown and 11 plays, 51 yards, 4:06, and Netten's game winning field goal), but the most significant drive of the game in my mind was the 13 play, 46 yard drive that took 4:09 off the clock and led to Netten's first field goal.
That was Mark Mangino's response to Iowa's eight minute drive and is going to be key on Saturday. Baylor's offense presents the opposite problem of Iowa's, and tries to score quickly, in bunches, and with reckless disregard for a scoreboard operator's hands. In order for Iowa State to even stay close on Saturday they're going to have to manufacture drives that keep Bryce Petty and company on the sidelines.
That's not to say that every drive has to be 13 plays. When you start to increase the amount of plays it takes to score there are certain inefficiencies that take over and it just presents more opportunities for an offense to fail at their goal. A few four play drives that put points on the board will be more effective than a 13 play drive that results in no points. It's not Iowa State's preferred recipe for success, but some quick strikes will have to happen to keep pace on the scoreboard.
Let's get this out of the way right now, Baylor's defense is the most athletic the Cyclones have seen this season, but they aren't going to be the most disciplined. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is as aggressive as they come and will be blitzing from every angle and just about at every opportunity. This aggression has not been all for naught, however. Baylor is allowing 64.3 yards per game on the ground, good enough for 4th nationally and best in the Big XII. Maybe more impressive is their 9.3 tackles for loss per game, which is slightly skewed by their 13 against a deplorable SMU.
Either way you slice it this defense is a load to handle for even the most experienced offensive line. Right end Shawn Oakman should be getting calls from Scott Drew to be the next man to be abused in man-to-man situations, but on the football field his 6'9", 280 pound frame is just about impossible to handle. He's raw in his technique, but you can afford to be that with his mix of size, athleticism, and the fact he has two 300 pound tackles keeping the middle under control. Left end Jamal Palmer probably spends the better part of his game days telling the offensive line to not forget about him.
All-American linebacker Bryce Hager should look familiar to a lot of fans. His play style is reminiscent of A.J. Klein but he's even better in space and knows the Baylor defense inside and out. If there's opportunity for this defense to break down it's in the relatively inexperienced back four, but the front seven has been so dominant that teams are only averaging 6.7 yards per attempt on 3rd down passes.
Iowa State is gaining 41% of their yards on 2nd down, and averaging 6.6 yards per pass attempt in doing it. Baylor's defense is allowing a team to accumulate only 29% of their yards on second down and allowing only 3.4 yards per pass attempt. This is strength on strength and a key focal point if Iowa State continues to be somewhat ineffective on first down runs.
The Match Up
Typically I find the break down in this section is the easiest to do. It's not difficult to pick up on a defense's tendencies and determine how an offense should attack them. Today however, I find it incredibly difficult to come up with a "what would I do analysis". This stems from two factors. One, Iowa State just isn't very good in the run game right now, and two, Baylor's front four is the best they've seen in ages (maybe ever) and Bennett can elect to drop seven in to coverage and still come away with a sufficient pass rush.
There has to be some ingenuity in the run game to keep Baylor honest. Lining up E.J. Bibbs in the backfield as an H-back isn't going to beat Baylor on a strength vs strength test, and trying to work Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy outside is going to be countered by Baylor's speed on the edge. If Iowa State is to do anything more than give the running game the posterity treatment they'll have to force Baylor to be gap sound, and the only way to do that is to mix Sam Richardson more heavily in to the run game.
That's not what Mangino and Paul Rhoads want, but there needs to be a handful of plays that make Sam a threat. Whether those be zone reads with a kick out block, a triple option look, or a veer, something has to be done to make Baylor back off and allow Iowa State to be effective enough at running the ball to chew up the clock.
Passing the ball 60 times won't win this game, but passing it 40 times with enough running to get a few yards and drain the clock might keep Iowa State in it long enough for something crazy to happen. The passing game is going to have to rely on stretching the field horizontally to open up the middle, and I think you'll see some early play action bubble screens to keep the Baylor linebackers in the box. Baylor's blitzes are ripe for tunnel screens and that's a perfect opportunity to get Jarvis West in space behind a few big bodied blockers.
Either way the key through the air is to release the ball quickly and not allow Oakman and the line to get to the quarterback. Deep ball opportunities are going to be few and far between with the aggressiveness of this defense, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Mangino take some early down, midfield shots with a max protection scheme protecting Richardson.
An anal freight train is coming to Ames and Bryce Petty is its conductor. Don't let the back injury fool you, Petty is healed and ready to go after last week's bye. Petty loses Lache Seastrunk in the backfield but he's replaced by the ever dangerous, and excellently named, Shock Linwood. Petty himself is a strong enough runner despite only tallying four carries on the season. I'll chalk that up to the competition he's faced (and the injury), but don't be surprised to see him pull the ball from Linwood a few times if Iowa State tries to stuff the middle.
What makes Baylor so dangerous is their deep crop of receivers. KD Cannon may be a freshman but he's already caught five touchdowns this year, and is the closest thing to Dez Bryant I've seen since the latter was wearing orange in Stillwater. Levi Norwood is out this week but Baylor's depth still brings receivers Antwan Goodley and Corey Coleman in to the fold. These guys are deep, fast, and take every opportunity to blow a game open. Tre'von Armstead holds down the middle at the tight end spot, but strangely it's the one area of the field that Baylor doesn't test in their passing game.
The offensive line lost Cyril Richardson to the NFL but still has nine of their top ten linemen topping 300 pounds. Say what you will about spread teams needing "lean" linemen to keep up the pace, but Baylor clearly doesn't subscribe to this notion and has had a ridiculous amount of success with it. Winning at the line of scrimmage is all they're concerned about and they let their talent, and Petty's quick release, do the most damage.
Iowa State Defense
Iowa State's defense has improved in all three games this season and dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half against Iowa. The Cyclones forced Jake Rudock to beat them with his arm and he failed in a spectacular fashion.
That said, Iowa isn't Baylor.
Wally Burnham has had two weeks to prepare his defense for the most explosive offense in the country and he's going to have to pick his poison like the past few years. In 2011 he dared RGIII to beat him with his arm early, and he did. Once Iowa State had to spread the defense the Baylor running game took over and drove the final dagger into the Cyclones.
Burnham had the same philosophy in 2012, but with a much different effect. Nick Florence torched the secondary, but the running game never got going and the Baylor offense sputtered to 21 points, their second lowest total in the past two and a half years.
Unfortunately Iowa State doesn't have three future NFLers in the middle of the field so they're going to have to get creative and find a way to stop the run without leaving massive chunks of field open for Baylor's receivers. No doubt Burnham mixes up his tactics throughout the game, but this is very much a pick your poison type of offense.
Play bump and run? Get beat deep. Play off? Get beat on a hitch and hope you secure the tackle to prevent yards after catch. Play five in the box? Get ready to have the ball smashed down your throats. Play all of those in varying situations? Give yourself a chance. A small one, but a chance nonetheless.
I said earlier that Baylor doesn't test the middle of the field in the passing game, and it couldn't be more true. Only 14% of Baylor's passing plays are between the hashes, and they lean heavily on the speed of their receivers to work open on the sidelines.
Conversely, 44% of their runs come up the middle, and it pairs up well with teams running 46% of their plays between the tackles on Iowa State. A key focus: fill the middle and force Petty to keep. He's no slouch running, but he's not Linwood.
The Match Up
If I'm Rhoads I put in a call to Bob Huggins two weeks ago and have him instill the "they can't call everything" set of virtues in this defense. Iowa State is going to have to muck things up early and often against Baylor and get in to Petty and his receivers' heads to slow their offense down. Aggressive tactics in the secondary might slow down Baylor enough to buy the defense some time and give them a puncher's chance. Sure, we're likely to see some pass interference and defensive holding calls early, but some physicality to make the Baylor offense think might be just what the doctor ordered.
The defensive line has to keep up their early season success and get to Petty early and make him move his feet. This is easier said than done given his quick release and an offense that compliments it, but if the line can make him scramble even just a little bit then it slows down Baylor's attack.
That said, Baylor's offense cannot be stopped, but rather just contained. Doing that for 60 minutes is the recipe that Burnham is trying to cook up.
If there's one unit where Iowa State has a clear advantage, it's here. West is one of the best returners in the country, Nealy is no slouch, and Colin Downing and Netten are becoming weapons in the kicking game. Baylor kicker Chris Callahan has struggled early this season, connecting on only one field goal on five attempts.
I can't say I know much about Baylor returners Johnny Jefferson, Lynx Hawthorne, or Cal Spangler so I'll just assume they're fast as tits and hope Iowa State's coverage units don't allow them to break free. The Cyclones have allowed one punt return yard this year, and in a game that's sure to be aided by field position that is going to be huge.
WRNL Beer Pick of the Week
Tough choice this week. SoCalClone is blessing us with some sweet nectar from the West, but I'll have no idea what that nectar is until Friday.
That's what I'm focused on drinking, but since this column is about giving recommendations before the game I'll just have to go and pick another Surly this week. Surly's Schadenfreude will be at our tailgate this week and is a smooth drinking dunkel that is refreshing without being too heavy on the ole gut.
I've spent the previous 2,000 words rambling about how Iowa State matches up with Baylor, and if you noticed, I've basically said they don't. I've tried to provide a view of how I would slow this team down if I was in the coaches' box, but to be quite honest I'm not sure it's enough.
Baylor is simply more athletic and explosive than Iowa State. Don't let the the fact the Cyclones choked the life out of the Hawkeyes in Iowa City fool you, Iowa State was the faster team that day, but will not be the fastest team on Saturday.
The greatest equalizer in any match up is turnovers, and Iowa State has to win that battle to win the game. In their 2009 and 2012 victories in Jack Trice, the Cyclones were +2 in both games in turnover margin. In 2011 in Waco they were even (advantage: Bears), and last year they were -3 (soul crushing advantage: Bears).
You can scheme all you want for match ups like this, but at the end of the day taking care of the football matters, and whichever team fails at it will make their lives difficult on Saturday night. You cannot give an offense like Baylor's more possessions than they deserve, but you can take advantage of a defense that relies on its athleticism by keeping them on the field. Iowa State must hold on to the ball and must force Baylor to be careless with it. I think they can do it, but I don't think they can do it enough.
Baylor is a legitimate Top 10 team and a contender for the College Football Playoff. Iowa State is still finding its way through the Big XII landscape and figuring out who they want to be. If Baylor is gearing up for their moon shot then the Cyclones are putting gas in their Escort to continue their journey up the mountain.
Iowa State 31
PS - Baylor fans (and any fans) are welcome to stop by our tailgate in Lot G7. We have a WRNL flag flying and are usually in the first row. Map here.
PPS - Last time Iowa State beat a defending Big XII champion: Texas, 2010. Last time they did it at home: The 1992 Marv Seiler upset over defending Big 8 champion Nebraska. Yeesh.
PPPS - Our Daily Bears is one of the very best SBN blogs at covering their team, and their blog has been invaluable in helping prep me for this preview. Pat yourself on the back gentlemen.