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2015 Game I: Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa Preview

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Paul Rhoads and his reputation is on the line for this one, as Iowa State welcomes in-state UNI to the new Jack Trice Stadium on September 5th.

The Weitz Company/Iowa State Athletics

It’s that time of year again! Football is back and the newly renovated Jack Trice Stadium is ready to fill the seats for Paul Rhoads’s seventh season on the sidelines.

2015 Game I: Iowa State (0-0, 0-0) vs. University of Northern Iowa (0-0, 0-0)

Time: 7:00 p.m. CDT

Location: Jack Trice Stadium and the new bowled-in south end zone, Ames, IA

Capacity: 61,500

Line: Currently off the board, some sites have ISU -8

Television: Cyclones.tv

Radio: Cyclone Radio Network

Game Notes/Release

University of Northern Iowa Athletic Site

In what is called the biggest must-win in Paul Rhoads’ career, Iowa State welcomes in-state FCS powerhouse Northern Iowa to Ames for the first game of the season. Fans get their first glimpse at the newly renovated Jack Trice Stadium, as the generation-long wait for the south end zone is finally over (thanks, Reiman family!). And did I mention this game is a sellout? Playing under the lights in a packed Jack Trice is like waking up on Christmas morning.

ISU fans have spent the entire offseason pondering how many wins Rhoads will have to capture in order to keep his job. First on the docket is yet another FCS opponent, and one that has been a thorn in the side of Iowa State the last two seasons. Last year, ISU opened up with a loss to NDSU 34-14. Two seasons ago, UNI tangled with the Cyclones, and the Panthers came out the victor, 28-20.

To say that can’t happen again is an understatement. Iowa State has more scholarship players, better facilities and better coaches. They play in a Power 5 conference on television nearly every week. To be frankly honest, ISU should never lose to an FCS team.

When we last left off….

Iowa State was getting the tar beat out of them in Fort Worth, as TCU beat the equivalent of a run-down high school team by a video game score of 55-3. WNRL staff and fellow fans couldn’t wait for the season to be over, until…

The 2015 Cyclone football team returns eight starters to offense and six starters on defense. Rhoads and his staff captured an immediate need on defense by signing multiple JUCO players in the offseason. Currently, ISU has a total of nine former junior college standouts on the defensive two-deep. Coaching continuity can’t be understated – before last season, ISU brought in SIX new assistant coaches. None were lost during the offseason, except for former strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight, who departed for Houston.

A lot of question marks remain at the linebacker position, offensive line and in the offensive backfield. ISU has been hit by the injury bug more than most teams in college football the last two years and hope to get some better luck in 2015. According to Phil Steele, ISU lost 42 starts due to injury or discipline in 2015... A truly staggering number.

From day one, Rhoads exclaimed there were three people in life: leaders, followers, and ass-holes. He can deal with the first two, but if you are the third type, you’re off the team, and Rhoads has stuck to his guns. Since last season, he kicked off safety T.J. Mutcherson and wide receiver P.J. Harris. Other notable departures in the offseason were linebacker Alton Meeks, running back Devondrick Nealy, wide receiver Tad Ecby and defensive tackle Devlyn Cousins.

The Series

ISU leads the all-time series against UNI, 20-5-3, with UNI winning the last meeting 28-20 in 2013. Rhoads is 2-1 all-time vs. UNI, and UNI coach Mark Farley is 2-5 all-time against the Cyclones

UNI Tidbits

UNI ended the 2014 season with a 9-5 record, and come into Saturday’s game as the No. 10 ranked team in the FCS. They return 15 starters, and Mark Farley returns for his 15th season as UNI's coach. The Panthers have not named a starting QB yet for the game, as it is currently being fought between four potential signal callers. UNI’s former star running back and Cyclone killer, David Johnson, has taken his talents to the NFL, and will no longer have the opportunity to shred the ISU defense.

Iowa State Offense

Slingin’ Sammy B. Richardson returns for his third season at QB for the Cyclones and, barring injury, should end his career with multiple school records on the offensive side of the ball. Mark Mangino is back for his second season as the offensive playcaller, and hopefully the continuity of a Mangino-led offense improves as well as Kansas' did for Mangenius. As coach of the Jayhawks, Mangino’s offensive statistics increased significantly from year one to year two. KU's point total increased by 43%, passing TDs by 73%, rushing yards by 31% and total yards by 33%.

Give those same increased numbers to a 2015 ISU football team, and they go from 23 points per game to 33, passing TDs from 21 to 36, rushing yards per game from 124 to 162 and total yards from 372 to 494! Now, ISU probably won’t reach all those video game-like numbers, but another year of grooming and a second year with the same playbook should give this offense a boost in year two of the Mangino project.

The Cyclones have a LOT of options at receiver. Their deepest position is also their strongest, and can give ISU some of those "big plays" that Rhoads keeps talking about. Quenton Bundrage returns from knee surgery, sophomore stud Allen Lazard continues to impress, and D’Vario Montgomery returns after losing nearly 30 pounds in the offseason. With the lack of a true tight end, we will see more 3- and 4-wide packages. Don’t forget about Dondre Daley.

The position with the least amount of experience is the running backs. Sophomore Tyler Brown will make his first start, and flanking him will be redshirt freshman Mike Warren and true freshman Joshua Thomas. All three lack big game experience, but also have a ton of potential. I don’t foresee a huge game out of either Brown or Warren, since both are getting big-time action for the first time. It all depends on…

The offensive line is a big question mark. While Brandon Blaney’s bunch brings back five players with at least 10 starts notched on their belts, they still haven't played together as a healthy unit. ISU has to get the run game going, and that starts up front with the hog mollies. Inconsistency and lack of depth have hindered the line for years, and has caused the offense to become stagnant for multiple possessions (and force Sam to run for his life).

I’m not so worried about the running backs as I am the offensive line. Hopefully they can get off the ball quickly and give Richardson time to make his throws. Iowa State has the skill players available to make big plays, but it all comes down to the brain trust of the offensive line to make it happen.

First Key to Victory – Give Sam time to throw the ball

The offensive line has to give Richardson time back there so he can utilize our skill players on the outside. ISU’s greatest strength is at wide receiver, and it will be null and void if Sam doesn’t have time in the pocket.

UNI Defense

UNI runs a standard 4-3 defense, and the first thing I noticed is the lack of size on the defensive line. Their four projected starters average 261 pounds. ISU’s projected starting five on the O-Line average 305...Advantage Iowa State. While the front four are lean, they are also nasty. Led by defensive line coach Bryce Paup (Yes, that Bryce Paup), UNI ranked number three in FCS in 2014 in sacks.

The Panther defense also forced at least one turnover in 13 of 14 games in 2014, and finished third in the league in Interceptions. Top returning starters include linebacker Brett McMakin, defensive end Isaac Ales and defensive end Ronelle McNeil. All three combined for 41.5 tackles for loss and 25 sacks in 2014. UNI also returns their top corner and safety in Deiondre Hall and Tim Kilroy. Hall and Kilroy were ranked #1 and #2, respectively, in the conference for interceptions in ‘14.

Being nationally ranked on defense was quite common for UNI in 2014. While they did lose three of their top four tacklers to graduation, the Panthers had a stellar season on the defensive side of the ball. UNI ranked 10th in FCS in rushing defense, 14th in total defense and 15th in scoring defense.

The Verdict

Iowa State’s strength is their trusted quarterback and his decision-making skills. I have full confidence in Sam to make the short to intermediate throws and the right checkdowns. He is very careful with the ball, and will have to be against this defense. UNI can get pressure from their front four, and ISU’s offensive line should be able to shoulder that burden.

Most importantly, ISU has to be able to run the ball. It opens up the offense so much more, and allows Mangenius to play with all his toys instead of just focusing on a few. I expect a very stout and fundamentally sound defense from UNI. They will get to the quarterback and make their fair share of plays.

What ISU has to do is sustain drives, and tire down the Panther defense. Running the ball will chew the clock and open up passing lanes to the "big three" at receiver. Don’t expect to see an NFL-Blitz type system where you call the bomb every time and throw it deep. Sam doesn’t throw a good deep ball, and the line has yet to prove that they can give him an ample amount of time to make the deep throw.

Advantage – ISU, slightly. The Cyclones have too much depth and talent to not be the pick here

Iowa State Defense

The defense last year was terrible, horrible, no good and just plain very bad. It all starts up front, and last year ISU had some players playing D-line that had no business being on the field. A perfect example is Robby Garcia, who started the NDSU game last year, and is now 3rd on the depth chart at DT. Even after the sudden departure of Devlyn Cousin, the Clones still have a decent amount of depth on the line.

The entire defense only brings back four starters from last year (which is probably a good thing). Those include CBs Nigel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson, along with 2014 Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, Kamari Cotton-Moya. Cotton-Moya was kicked out of last year’s season opener against NDSU for an absolute bullshit targeting call, which really changed the tempo for the defense in that game. The secondary is the strongest unit and can mask most mistakes made by front seven, if need be.

Making his first start in a Cyclone jersey is heralded nose tackle Demond Tucker. Tucker enjoyed the praises of being the 2013 NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year, and had a lot of schools after him on the recruiting trail. What brought him to Ames was the chance to play right away, and he will make a big difference for this 2015 team. On Tucker’s left and right are Trent Taylor and Dale Pierson. Pierson ended the year very strong in 2014, and has shown he has a motor and can get to the quarterback.

Now is where it gets sticky. The linebackers for ISU are very below average. I would be lying to you if I wasn’t scared about the inexperience at the linebacker position, or the god-awful display of poor tackling put on by the entire unit in the second half of last season. The one guy that stands out is Jordan Harris. Similar to Jeremiah George, it took Harris a bit for the light to turn on, but according to Wally the Wizard, it has. Look for Harris to eat up the stat sheet in tackles. The nickel position has been raved about for months with Jarnor Jones and Reggan Northrup. Both bring a sort of athletic ability that we haven’t seen at the position, and can be X-factors for this unit.

Second Key to Victory – Wrap up.

The linebackers have to fill their gap responsibilities and make the tackles necessary to keep the UNI running backs from getting into the secondary.

UNI Offense

Thank God this guy is gone

David Johnson torched ISU’s defense in 2013 for 199 rushing yards and 4 TDs. He is now playing on Sundays, and is no longer in a purple uniform. Whew

UNI brings in a new offensive coordinator by the name of Joe Davis, who spent his previous two seasons calling plays for Shippensburg, a Division II school in Pennsylvania (and alma mater to Green Bay Packer fullback, John Kuhn). He brings with him an up-tempo, no-huddle passing attack. Davis led Shippensburg last year to 513 yards per game, and helped them rank third nationally with 87 plays per game. 2014 was the 4th year in a row that Davis has coached a QB who accumulated at least 3000 yards of offense and 30 touchdowns.

Other than running backs coach Bill Salmon, the rest of the offensive coaching staff is brand new this year, and includes ISU alum and football letterwinner Ben Barkema as OL coach.

Farley likes to run a balanced attack, and I’m not sure if he will give Davis full control to pass all over the field like he wants to. From the two-deep at the receiver position, the Panthers only bring back 32 combined receptions from the 2014 season. The top returning running back is senior Darrian Miller, who transferred in from Kansas two years ago and brings speed to the field.

UNI carries only one senior on their offensive line and returns two starters. The quarterback position is up for grabs, literally. There are four signal callers vying for the starting gig, and Farley still has yet to name a starter. Leading the pack in experience is senior Sawyer Kollmorgen, who shared the spotlight last year, starting seven games. Kollmorgen is not a runner and is an average passer. 6-foot-6 JUCO transfer Dalton Demos is an option, as is Illinois transfer Aaron Bailey. Rounding out the four, is Grinnell native Eli Dunne. I look for Kollmorgen to make the start due to experience, especially since he beat ISU two years ago in Ames, with 218 passing yards and 2 TDs.

The Verdict

ISU will continue to run its bend-but-don’t-break defense. Look for Wally to keep it basic, as he is bringing in a lot of new faces who will be stepping onto a Division I field for the first time. It would be great to see some blitzes, and with the lack of talent at linebacker and the fact that the front four has some depth, the Clones will have to get creative to get some pressure on the QB.

I worry about the lack of speed at the linebacker position. The front four is going to have to eat up space on the interior so the next level is not shredding blockers.

Look for UNI to try to run the ball. Chances are they will be somewhat successful in that capacity. ISU has had problems stopping the run recently, and until this new defensive line proves me wrong, UNI will probably pound out a salty rushing attack.

I’m sure Wally is game planning against all four QBs, and whomever it is, the Cyclones need to make sure they make key 3rd down stops and wrap up on tackles.

Advantage – Neither. I can’t give the nod to either team here. ISU has to prove to me that their defense is improved, and until they do, I can’t trust them. UNI has too many new faces on field and coaching staff.

Special Teams

Cole "Swoll" Netten is back for his junior year, and brings with him 75% accuracy in field goal percentage, currently number one in school career annals. Sophomore Colin Downing returns after an average year at the punter position.

The days of the great Jarvis West are over. The Cyclones will see new players in the return game, as slimmed down D’Vario Montgomery and newly positioned running back Trever Ryen will share the kick returns. Ryen will also split time with Allen Lazard on punt return duty.

UNI returns one of the FCS’s best kickers in senior Michael Schmadeke. He led all FCS kickers in points in 2014 and was automatic, going 27-29 on FGs, and 51-53 on PATs. Schmadeke was named to seven different All-America teams in 2014, and is truly an asset for the Panthers in the kicking game.

While David Johnson left at RB, he also left at the KR position. UNI led the FCS nation in kickoff returns in 2014, and should still be somewhat above average in the return game.

Advantage - UNI. I don’t foresee anything eye-popping out of Iowa State's return men, and they're probably a step down from last year with Jarvis gone. Netten has proven he's accurate. On the other side, UNI carries a sure thing in their back pocket from the kicker position.

KnowDan's Beer Pick of the Week

KnowDan here, checking in as WRNL's equivalent of BK and his Cyclone Jukebox Pick of the Week. Except this pick involves beer, good beer, none of that Bud Light Lime shit. So it's September, and that means Oktoberfests are hitting the shelves. I'm not recommending one today, but I am giving you a WRNL Public Service Announcement that Surlyfest is now in Iowa. Go check it out if you're getting in the mood for the best time of year.

This week's pick is fitting for the last hurrah of summer and the warm weather we'll have this weekend. This week's beer comes all the way from San Diego and Ballast Point Brewing Company. It's the zesty, fruity, juice worthy Grapefruit Sculpin IPA. If you like grapefruit, you'll love this beer, and it's the perfect way to put a cap on the summer and move into football season.

Final Analysis

The team that Mark Farley brought into Ames two years ago was a much better team. This UNI team, while ranked 10th in preseason polls, brings some talent to the table, but also a lot of question marks. They will be well coached, fundamentally sound and disciplined, but they don't have the horses that Iowa State has.

Paul Rhoads has to win this game. There is no excuse to lose three straight season openers, especially to FCS opponents. I look for the defense to be MUCH improved over last year, hopefully getting some pressure on the quarterback and portraying more speed on the field.

Final Key to Victory – Stop the Run.

The best teams in the Paul Rhoads era had strength at the defensive line position. Think Nate Frere and Jake McDonough. Now, it’s Demond Tucker’s time to shine. In order for ISU to win their first game of the season, they have to follow their gap assignments.

The reason why ISU will win this game is the experience of their quarterback. Sam Richardson was voted on as a captain, and he has displayed a sort of leadership that this team can rally behind. He has the weapons at receiver and the legs to get out of the pocket and run. If Sam is running more than throwing, Saturday will be a long game. The offensive line has experience and will play together as one unit, even if Daniel Burton is out with a leg injury.

I know all of you want to see a blowout and a curb stomping, but don’t take UNI lightly. These first games are never fun to watch, and there will be times when UNI gets theirs. It’s those slow times in the game when ISU has to turn the momentum their way and step on the opponents’ throat to prove that they are for real.

I see a close victory in this one, and probably a low-scoring affair with pre-game jitters and first-time action for many.

Final Score

Iowa State 24, UNI 20

Pertinent Tailgate Information: WRNL tailgate, G7, breathalyzer, stop by. We'll have t-shirts to give away! Just look for the creepy looking white van next to the creepy looking white truck in the front row, or on Twitter/Facebook for our location!

And now for the discussion. Let’s hear your comments, predictions, etc!