2015 Game XII: Iowa State (3-8, 2-7) vs. West Virginia (6-4, 3-4)
Date: November 28, 2015
Time: 11:00 AM CST
Location: Milan Pusker Stadium, Morgantown, West Virginia
Line: West Virginia -14, O/U 61
Television: Fox Sports 1
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Not much happened in the last week of ISU football. Oh wait, Paul Rhoads got fired? AND he is coaching the game this weekend? While some media pundits have ridiculed Athletic Director Jamie Pollard for allowing Rhoads to coach his last game even though he was let go, it speaks volumes to the respect that is given to the man who has graced the Cyclone sidelines for seven years.
Once seen as a treacherous mountain to climb in the Big 12, football in Ames, IA has turned into a much easier terrain since Rhoads has arrived. Since coming here in 2009, Rhoads has beaten every team in the Big 12 Conference, except Oklahoma and Kansas State. From 1992-2008, ISU won nine conference road games. Rhoads won SIX in seven seasons. He is the only coach to beat a top-five nationally ranked team. In 120 years ISU has beat only six ranked opponents on the road; Rhoads has three of those.
Although all of these accolades look good on paper, the product on the field could have, and should have been much better. As Jamie Pollard said in his press conference on Monday, "unfortunately they don't keep score on the scoreboard for potential and talent. They keep score for results."
While I am excited for the future of ISU football, may this weekend's game serve as a last hurrah for the man that brought them this far. He may be handing off the torch to a coach with a bigger and brighter future, but don't forget that this team wants nothing more than to give their leader, their mentor, their coach a ride out into the sunset with one last victory.
When we last left off....
I'm not going to get much into last week's debacle. ISU played a fantastic first half, followed by a lackluster of adjustments and slew of ugly turnovers that gave the game away. Kansas State did not beat Iowa State, Iowa State beat themselves.
That blip on the radar wasn't the reasoning for Rhoads's firing, but it was a microcosm of what had become a team that couldn't win close games and was the right decision moving forward.
West Virginia Tidbits
The Mountaineers are coached by Mount Pleasant, Iowa native Dana Holgorsen, and have under-exceeded their expectations so far this season. West Virginia sits at 6-4, and 3-4 in conference play. While they used to be known for a high-flying passing attack, they are now very much a balanced offense.
West Virginia lost to Oklahoma State this year in OT, and got drubbed by Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor. They have beaten the rest of their conference foes, and are on a 3-game win streak, most recently blanking Kansas last week 49-0.
West Virginia leads the all-time series 2-1, winning last year's affair in Ames by a score of 37-24. The last time these two teams met in Morgantown, the Cyclones battled back from the largest deficit in school history (24 points), to beat the Mountaineers 52-44 in Triple Overtime.
Iowa State Offense
The overriding factor in this one is the health and stamina of the one and only Mike Warren. Warren was helped off the field last week with a leg injury, and as of Tuesday was upgraded to probable. Rhoads said in his press conference that the redshirt freshman should be good to go, but is still a bit sore. Warren is the engine that drives this offense, as he ranks 13th in the nation in rushing yards, and leads all freshmen running backs in that category. His 6.15 yards per carry will more than likely stand as the best for any ISU runner in a season, (even better than the great Troy Davis).
First Key to Victory - Win the Time of Possession
I foresee this matchup being a slow and drawn out affair, with multiple defensive stops, and fewer than average points being scored. If Iowa State can run the ball effectively they will allow the defense to rest, and it will play right into the momentum factor for the Cyclones.
Look for Sturdy to continue to pound the ball between the tackles, as WVU runs a 3-3-5 defense and ISU can exploit it with their beef up front. Guard Daniel Burton did not play last week, but Oni Omoile did. Having one, or both, will be key to continue to gain yards on first and second down and make life easier for Lanning and company on third down. Lanning looked like Joe Montana in the first half last week, accumulating four touchdowns, as he found the open receiver and continued to move the chains with his feet. He has gotten better each and every week.
Second Key to Victory - TURNOVERS
Turning the ball over last week is what shot ISU in the foot, and it will be ever so important again this week, as WVU ranks fifth in the country in turnovers gained. While most of those come by way of interceptions, the Cyclone runners need to shake off the fumble bug, and play a clean game against a scrappy defense.
The most touted group coming into the season was the ISU receiving corps, and they have under-achieved thus far. Allen Lazard continues to show that he is worth the price of admission, but others like D'Vario Montgomery and Quenton Bundrage have gone quiet for too long of stretches. They will need to show up for this one if the Cyclones look to steal one on the road.
West Virginia Defense
The Mountaineers run a very unmethodical 3-3-5 defense, with a third safety added into their scheme. They carry six seniors on that side of the ball, and also have height in the secondary. Not one defensive back is slighter than 5-foot-11, and their top cornerback Daryl Worley leads the Big 12 in passes defended and is second in interceptions. The other starting corner Terrell Chestnut is battling a shoulder injury and is questionable.
West Virginia's linebackers are fast, and are led by senior Nick Kwiatkoski and his 34 starts in blue and yellow. Shaq Pettaway follows Kwiatkoski in most tackles on the team, and also has seven TFL on the year. Defensive End Noble Nwachukwu leads the Mountaineers in the sack column with 6.5.
So far on the year, the WVU calling card on defense have been interceptions and third down stops. They are ranked second in the conference in third down defense, second in pass defense, and second in scoring defense. Their true strength is in the back end with the secondary.
The Verdict - West Virginia
This defense is fast and it is big in the defensive backfield. Their numbers are legitimate, but also don't abuse any of ISU's strengths. They can be run on, as WVU allows 177 yards on the ground. Their 3-man front can be exploited, and look for Iowa State to establish a run game behind Mike Warren and Joel Lanning. If Warren isn't full strength then look for the majority of the carries to go Joshua Thomas's way, as the freshman has improved immensely since the beginning of the year.
Iowa State Defense
ISU's defense has been the most dominant force of the team all year, and this game they will be called upon once more. DT Demond Tucker will have his hands full, as WVU likes to run the ball in all different directions, but him manhandling the middle will go a long ways in this one. ISU lacked a pass rush last week as Wally continued to implement a 3-man rush on third downs. He did get pressure with outside blitzes by the linebackers and even a corner blitz by Peavy. Look for more disguise blitzing schemes and defenders up in the box to stop the run.
Second Key to Victory - Contain the Outside Run
West Virginia likes to run the ball, and they do their most damage on the outside. It will be important for the outside edge (Waggoner and Pierson) to contain their gaps and for linebackers on the strong-side (Northrup and Harris) to shred blocks. WVU has a young offensive line but one of the conference's best in running back Wendell Smallwood.
We continue to see Reggan Northrup and Brian Mills keep their spots at the nickel and weakside linebacker position. Also Kamari Cotton-Moya is listed as starting free safety in the depth chart, and did see some action last week. Whomever the safeties are, it will be imperative to keep the offensive runners in front of them in this one.
Brian Peavy has continued to add to his magical first year in a Cyclone uniform, as the freshman leads the team in tackles, pass break-ups and interceptions. He and Nigel Tribune will have their hands full, as WR Shelton Gibson is second in the nation in yards per reception.
West Virginia Offense
The Mountaineers have moved on from a run-and-shoot passing attack, and turned into a very balanced offense. They are ranked 10th in the country in rushing offense at 244 yards per game, and 14th in total offense. The majority of the rushing yards come by way of junior running back Wendell Smallwood, who averages 123 yards per game and a paltry 6.7 yards per carry.
Quarterback Skyler Howard has some nifty legs too, as he has run for 597 yards and five touchdowns. He completes 57% of his passes, but only averages 213 yards per game through the air. The majority of those balls go towards Daikiel Shorts and Shelton Gibson. Shorts is the possession receiver and Gibson the touchdown maker. So far on the season, WVU has five receivers with at least 20 receptions.
Dana Holgorsen loves the up-tempo flow of an offense, and will continue to push the ball down the field as fast as he can. He has a deep threat in Gibson and a speedster in Smallwood out of the backfield.
Verdict - Iowa State
The only way this game will be won is if the defense shows up to play, and I believe it can be done against this WVU unit. It will be Rhoads's last game and a lot of emotion will be flowing out of these players, especially the seniors. This defense will go down as one the strongest since 2005, and has gotten progressively better as the season wears on. Look for some turnovers to bounce our way, and key third down stops will be the name of the game in this one.
Both Allen Lazard and Trever Ryen have staked their claim this year, leading the second-best punt return unit in the nation, and can change the momentum in an instant with a big play. Cole Netten has improved since his lackluster start, and the punting duo of Collin Downing and Holden Kramer will be called upon to make this field position battle a big one.
West Virginia carries one of the strongest special teams units, as their kicker Josh Lambert finished the 2014 season number one in the country in field goals made. He has a strong leg to boot, as he holds the record for most field goals made over 40 yards in a season. WVU's punter is also stellar, as senior Nick O'Toole ranks seventh nationally in punting.
The return men can also be scary, as they rank second in the conference in kick returns, and are led by Shelton Gibson who has a 30 yard return average and a 100-yard touchdown.
Advantage - West Virginia
The Mountaineers lead in this category just based on their legs. Look for this battle to be ever-so important, especially if it is a defensive battle. We will see a lot of punts back and forth, and the field position battle will sway possessions and momentum immensely.
KnowDan's Beer Pick of the Week
It's Black Friday and now officially Christmas season. With that in mind go get some Shiner Holiday Cheer, it's a holiday beer that doesn't hit you in the face with needless spice and one that's easy to take down a 6er of in a single sitting.
Don't like that? Then pour one out for Paul Rhoads with some good, old Pabst Blue Ribbon. Farewell Rhoads, you were the coach that made it ok for us to drink bad beer and enjoy it.
The magic number in this game is 24. No not for Jack Bauer, but for the ISU defense. In Paul Rhoads' seven seasons at the helm, when ISU allows 24 or fewer points per game in regulation, their record is 29-4. When the Cyclone defense allows more than 24 points, it is 3-50. Look for that number to be a contributing factor and the offense will have to run the clock and move the chains to help the defense in that daunting, yet achievable task.
Since before the season, I always looked at this matchup as a winnable game. My thoughts haven't changed, as ISU's defense is stout enough to stop the run, and the play from Joel Lanning has only gotten better each and every week. ISU has broken through with new offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, and has something special in the backfield with Mike Warren. If Warren can stay healthy, I see a big day out of him.
Look for a ton of emotion coming out of the locker room, as these players will run through a brick wall for Rhoads and his staff in their last game. This defense will make stops, the offensive line will move the ball, and Paul Rhoads will win his last game as Iowa State head coach.
Iowa State 28
West Virginia 24