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2017 Game XIII: Liberty Bowl - Iowa State vs. #19 Memphis Football Preview

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Let’s go bowling down to Beale Street!

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

2017 Game XIII: Liberty Bowl - Iowa State 7-5, 5-4) vs. #19 Memphis (10-2, 7-1 AAC)

Date: Saturday, December 30, 2017

Time: 11:30 A.M. CST

Location: Liberty Bowl Stadium, Memphis, TN

Capacity: 58,318, and SOLD OUT!

Line: Memphis -4

Television: ABC

Radio: Cyclone Radio Network

Game Notes/Release

Memphis Game Notes

Memphis SB Nation Website

Iowa State heads to Memphis, Tennessee, to play in the Liberty Bowl and take on……. Memphis.

While the majority of fans (myself included) were a bit ticked off playing a team on their home field, this matchup has slowly grown on me.

National pundits project this game to be one of the most competitive (and close) games to watch, and the Memphis Tigers compare favorably to many of ISU’s recent opponents they have faced in the Big 12 conference slate.

One thing is certain – Matt Campbell will have his boys ready to play. The additional practice time for our youngsters (and there are a lot of them), will be paramount for future success for this team for years to come.

“This group is fired up, (and) they’re excited to be together one more time. The one neat thing about these Cyclones is they love being together, and they really love the process it takes to get better. We now know who, where, and when, and we can put our focus on that. They’re really fired up”

-Matt Campbell

And now we bring you the HYPE TAPE!

Memphis Tidbits

You turn on the tape of this Memphis Tiger program and one thing stands out to you – SPEED!

They only know three gears – fast, faster, and fastest. Young coach Mike Norvell (age 36) took over this program two years ago from Justin Fuente (landed at Va Tech), and didn’t skip a beat with the offense.

Memphis did lose their offensive coordinator to the never-ending deep pockets of Texas A&M, but that shouldn’t affect them much, as Norvell calls the plays anyway. In fact, there were rumblings out there that Norvell would be swept off his feet for a Power-5 coaching offer, but he signed a 5-year extension (on Dec 5th) and appears to be sticking around for the forseeable future. I see a lot of similarities between both Campbell and Norvell.

QB Riley Ferguson, believe it or not, was recruited by Paul Rhoads and company. He originally enrolled to Tennessee, then went the JUCO route, and is now regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in all of Division I football. He can make every throw, no matter where his feet or body are aligned. Think of Johnny Football and all the off-balance passes he made – very similar.

Ferguson is only a small cog in the machine though, as the Tigers rank in the top-10 nationally in multiple scoring categories, as well as average over 209 yards on the ground. They have a first-team All-American wide receiver in Anthony Miller, and a devastatingly fast kick returner in Tony Pollard.

The defense is, well, not the best. They love to blitz, force any kind of pressure, and are aggressive to the ball. This causes them to give up big plays, mostly via the pass, and their secondary has been burned on double moves and the play-action pass over and over again.

Needless to say, this Tiger offense carries the team, and brings home the bacon. Thus far, Memphis is 10-2 on the year, undefeated at home, and ended up in 2nd place behind UCF in the American Athletic Conference.

The Series

This is the first meeting between these two programs. ISU has played twice in the Liberty Bowl, losing both times, and most recently in 2012 to Tulsa by a score of 31-17.

Iowa State Offense

All eyes have been on the health of David Montgomery, and his progress since an ankle sprain in the Baylor game. He will be ready to go, and this Memphis team will not be ready for his dominance. They, quite frankly, have not seen anyone like him, and the fact that the Tigers have a smaller defensive front projects well for the DM Train.

First Key To Victory – Milk That Clock, Baby

There is no one in the country with more forced tackles than #32, and he will be called upon for most of the dirty work. The biggest key to success for the Cyclones is to keep Memphis’s offense off the field. Now our offensive line has been average thus far, but we have seen more and more glimpses of greatness as the season has progressed. It will be paramount for the front-five to hold their blocks, as they have a smaller than average (but a quick) defensive line.

ISU’s receivers should have a hey-day, especially our twin towers Hakeem Butler and Allen Lazard. The two starting cornerbacks for Memphis stand 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11. I pity those fools that try and cover these athletic specimens. The safeties play way too wide in coverage (much wider than anyone I’ve seen), and will allow for multiple shots down the middle of the field. Look for Butler to take advantage in his pseudo tight end role, and corral balls via the seam pass.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Hakeem the Dream is going to Slaughter this Memphis D
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

One other thing that this Memphis defense thrives on is forcing turnovers. That my friends, plays right into the hands of the Cyclones. Knock on wood, but ISU has yet to lose a fumble on the year, and a healthy game-managing quarterback in Kyle Kempt is just what the doctor ordered.

Look for the fifth-year senior to continue his mistake-free ways, take what is given to him, and move the chains. One thing I noticed on tape is the jam coverage and aggressiveness in the horizontal passing game from their defensive backs. ISU’s bread and butter is the screen game, and Memphis will break the bank to stop that. The only thing is, they have yet to see receivers as talented as ISU has at blocking. Advantage ISU.

Memphis Defense

The Tigers run a conventional 4-2-5 defense, with a stand-up defensive end known as the KAT position (similar to ISU’s LEO). Their front four only averages 280 pounds, which is perfect for a conference like the AAC, but is devastating to against a Big-12 team like ISU. I can see the Joeldozer licking his chops already.

The Tigers only start four seniors on defense, and have another five starting for the first time in their careers. In fact, since the beginning of the season, Memphis has lost six players on that side of the ball in their two-deeps.

Given their inexperience, this unit is predicated on speed and swarming to the football. They have forced 30 turnovers on the year, which is second-best in the country. The majority of those turnovers came by way of fumbles, in which they have forced 30, and recovered 14 thus far. Watching on tape, you saw multiple times where defenders were more in tune to tackling for the ball, as opposed to wrapping up.

Memphis is led in tackles by their nickelback Austin Hall (not a good sign if you are a defensive coordinator). Third in tackles is do-it-all senior linebacker Gerard Avery, who leads the team in tackles-for-loss (19.5) and sacks (6.5).

The Tigers don’t get much of a pass-rush from their men up front, but do a decent job at stopping the run. On the year, opponents have run for a 4.5 yard per carry average, and right around 200 yards per game.

The pass defense on the other hand, is down-right pitiful, allowing 280 yards through the air and 29 touchdowns. Again, it is feast or famine for the secondary, as they go for the homerun, and get beat more often than not. They are led by stud freshman TJ Carter, who has five INT’s on the year, and senior safety Jonathan Cook.

The Verdict – ISU

I would compare this defense to that of a Texas Tech or Oklahoma State. They are not very fundamentally sound, nor do they play as one solid unit. They make multiple mental lapses per game, and their scheme allows for big plays to be had.

Kyle Kempt may not get it going on his screen passes, but he will find holes in the middle of the field for slot options Trever Ryen and Deshaunte Jones. I see a big day out of Hakeem Butler, and of course, the master of the jump-ball in the red zone – Allen Lazard.

As always, the more carries the better for the DM Train. Give him the ball, and let him go to work. I think a solid 30 carries will work wonders for our defense.

Iowa State Defense

Another game, another top-tier offensive opponent.

ISU has held all but one conference opponent to 10 points less than their season scoring averages. Memphis averages 48 points per game, good for second-best in the nation. This defense is as well prepared as any for their high-tempo offensive attack. In fact, they love the challenge.

This Memphis team is fast in every phase of the game. They have burners in the backfield, and a bevy of playmakers at the wideout position. The most important thing for the Cyclone defense is to wrap up.

Second Key To Victory – Wrap Up At the Point of Attack

Time and again, while watching film I saw Memphis’s athletes break tackles at the line of scrimmage and turn a meaningless gain into a 10-yard play or more. They have slippery running backs, and none is as dangerous as Darrell Henderson who averages nearly NINE YARDS PER CARRY!

It all starts up front for the Cyclone defense, and a healthy Ray Lima makes a big difference. I’m not worried about JD Waggoner as much as I am about end JaQuan Bailey. The true sophomore has to be sound in his gaps, and not let down on plays to the outside. His vision and leverage will be the difference between a tackle-for-loss and an 8-yard gain.

Our linebackers will be busy, and will have to communicate effectively, especially in pass coverage. Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock will mix it up with multiple looks, going to a 3-man front with more defensive backs, especially in third-down situations. It will be tough to make substitutions though, as Memphis snaps the ball faster than Fran McCaffrey’s blood boils.

Third Key to Victory – Win on 1st and 2nd Downs

Memphis gets everything going with their run game, and no down is more critical than the first. If ISU can slow down the running attack, and force the Tigers into third-and-longs, then they can get the right personnel on the field to combat their passing attack. Easier said than done, but the hog mollies up front need to hold their gaps, and the likes of Joel Lanning and Marcel Spears will eat.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

ISU’s secondary is one of the best at wrapping up in the open field, and will be called upon do so in multiple occasions on Saturday. The safeties will be busy, and I foresee a bit more of backups DeMonte Ruth and Mackenro Alexander on the field to create mismatches in the defensive backfield.

Memphis Offense

While everyone has been salivating over the NFL-caliber arm of Riley Ferguson, this Tiger offense starts with their running game. They love to roll Ferguson out of the pocket, and no QB has been more accurate or dangerous on the run throwing the ball than Ferguson. Well, other than Baker Mayfield, and ask him what he thinks about ISU’s defense….

That running game is led by an experienced line who have only given up 15 sacks on the year, and have paved the way to over 280 yards on the ground in their last five games. They are led by first-team All-AAC guard Gabe Kuhn who is their only senior.

The Tigers have their own duo of lightning and thunder, although thunder has some pep in his step as well. The speedster Darrell Henderson has over 1154 yards on the year, including five consecutive 100-yard efforts. He can go the distance at any point, as he has seven rushes of 50 or more. Thunder is Patrick Taylor, Jr. who fills out at 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds. He is their goal-line back, and has 13 touchdowns on the year.

Their signal caller Riley Ferguson not only has the arm, but the wheels to run, as he has hit pay-dirt six times. The senior has thrown for a single-season record 3971 yards and 36 touchdowns, and competes passes at a 63% clip. He scares the crap out of me, as he can escape pressure, and always keeps his eyes downfield.

Ferguson is also a gun-slinger and likes to take his shots downfield. He reminds me of a young Brett Favre, especially on this throw.

Memphis has quite possibly the best receiver in the entire nation in Anthony Miller. While only 5-foot-11, this do-it-all senior can run every route efficiently. He can line up in the slot, outside, catch the jump ball, or make a guy miss on a bubble screen. He was named first-team All-American, and rightly so, as he caught 92 passes for 1407 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Just watch this route here. Everyone in the stadium knew the ball was going to Miller on a third-down play in crunch-time. This guy just makes plays.

Behind Miller are two other competent playmakers in Tony Pollard and Phil Mayhue. Pollard is blazingly fast, and primarily plays out of the slot, or even in the backfield at times. If the Tigers attempt any kind of trickeration, my bet is he will be involved. Mayhue is a taller possession receiver, standing at 6-foot-3, and combined the two have nearly 1000 yards between them.

Verdict – Memphis

This vaunted attack is just too good not to give Iowa State the nod here. I would compare this offense very similarly to Oklahoma’s. They love to sling it deep, and will keep your safeties honest every chance they can get. Don’t get caught sleeping, as they will run the ball right down your throat, and have really focused on getting yards on the ground as of recently.

I see both cornerbacks Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne matching up on Miller, but they will also disguise him all over the field. If ISU can get into manageable 2nd and 3rd downs, then they can slow this offense down. There is no better scheme in college football at slowing down high powered offenses than ISU’s 3-down linemen and extra safety on the field. If the Cyclones can stop that run early, look for the genius of Jon Heacock to go to work.

Special Teams

Memphis has an outstanding special teams unit. They carry with them the most electrifying kick returner in college football in Tony Pollard. The sophomore already has six career kick returns for touchdowns, including four this year, and is averaging an astounding 42 yards per return. Look for Campbell and company to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible.

The Tigers punters combined for an impressive 42 yards per punt, and only kicked two balls into the end zone all year for touchbacks. Their kickers combined for a 12-of-16 performance, as their only misses were from 40+. Needless to say, they didn’t have to kick many field goals this year.

Iowa State is competent in both kicking categories, and Garret Owens has staved off the criticism he took early in the year to make his last few kicks. Trever Ryen at punt returner is always a force, but the thing to watch for in this game is how the Cyclones will try to contain Pollard. Watch out

Verdict – Memphis

Not only do they have good kicking and punting, but the Tigers carry with them a game-breaker in the kick return game.

Winning Scale from 1 to 10

College football bowl games are the most difficult to project for any team. Quite honestly I do a very simple analysis of how well regarded and respected the coaching staff is among their players. Motivation is key in any sense, and I think ISU gains a chip on their shoulder playing against a team on their own home field.

Now on a scale from 1 to 10, if we were to compare a 1 with how excited Iowa was to play in the cold wintery snow in New York City to a 10 with the jubilation that Alabama got when they snuck in the College Football Playoff, I’d give ISU’s chances of winning this game at a solid 8.5.

Final Analysis

Throw out the Xs and Os folks. This game comes down to coaching and motivation.

Who is more prepared, who will get the most out of their kids, and who has the motivation to grind out the extra practice and/or film prep to win.

I think the sheer fact that ISU is playing their first bowl game in five years is a huge advantage. There is a massive amount of drive for this team to put together a victory, especially for their seniors.

This team is hungry for a bowl victory. They thrive on playing in Memphis’s stadium, they welcome the challenge of playing again as an underdog, and they will win this game.

Final Score

Iowa State 38

Memphis 35