Football

JAY JORDAN ANALYSIS: Speculative preview for Iowa

Sep 23, 2017; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz (left) and defensive lineman Nathan Bazata (99) and linebacker Josey Jewell (43) and defensive back Miles Taylor (19) and teammates prepare to enter the field before the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Which opponent in the Matt Campbell era has scored the most points against the Campbell Cyclones?

Texas Tech? No, actually the least. Oklahoma? Texas? Oklahoma State? Close, but no cigar. Yes, it is the team that shall not be named.

Eighty-six points in two contests against the Matt Campbell led Cyclones. Iowa represents the largest puzzle (Texas is 1-A) for Campbell.  A grass pounding and a hard fought overtime loss have been the results in the first two years.

What does year three hold for this rivalry?

Game 2 – Iowa

8-5 huh?  Nepotism is a great idea. We all want to create a business our children can join and inherit. Except when it is not. The young offensive coordinator at Iowa created an inconsistency that cost Iowa games and position on the national stage last season.

The opponent:

At their best, Iowa, and Ferentz, utilized their two tight sets to open the seams in both the pass and run game. They created angles and misdirection via formation and route concepts that made Hockenson and Fant impossible to cover (Fant is impossible to cover regardless). Wadley and Fant were used on delay routes that stressed coverage and forced teams in to uncomfortable man coverage schemes. However, the play calling would regress to slow developing play action passes that put the quarterback under pressure and in a position to be sacked or to make inaccurate hurried throws.  The offensive staff struggled to maintain the balance and feel for the game that would allow them to operate efficiently week to week.

The last five games of Iowa’s season are a microcosm of what was described above. The Ohio State game was a masterpiece of play calling. The Penn State game was the same on both sides of the ball. Nebraska was a team ready to get pounded, and they did. Boston College was a gutsy effort, but the offensive staff exhibited the same brilliance deployed in the previously mentioned games.

Then, there were Wisconsin and Purdue games. Iowa lost those games and exhibited the disjointed offensive effort that was their bane. Where they utilized their advantages in the games mentioned above, they reverted to slow developing play action passing and failed to establish the delay route concepts and timely departures from their base run game that fueled their previous outbursts.

Defensively, Iowa was solid, but not spectacular. Jackson provided a shut down corner and the safeties and linebackers were excellent in run support. However, the “non-Jackson” corners and safeties struggled in deep coverage. They were beaten often on deep throws. Remember the Hakeem Butler catch late in the Iowa State game as an example.

Alas, this is about 2018, not 2017. Stanley, Fant, Hockenson, Easely, and a handful of  talented young lineman return to the offense. The running backs are unproven, but it is Iowa. They will be solid and the addition of Mekhi Sargent may create a bit better than a solid three man core.  The efficiency of the offense depends on Stanley’s ability to develop a feel for the touch required on certain throws, and Brian Ferentz’s play calling learning curve. I expect both to be better in 2018.

Fant is literally incapable of being covered effectively for an entire game. If the offensive line takes a needed step forward, which should be expected from an Iowa offensive line, then there is the possibility of a balanced offensive attack that will be difficult to slow down.

Sep 2, 2017; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) celebrates his 2 yard touchdown reception from quarterback Nathan Stanley (not pictured) with fullback Drake Kulick (45) during the second quarter against the Wyoming Cowboys at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, Iowa sports an incredibly impressive group of defensive ends that can be expected to provide pressure week in and week out. They need to replace some pieces on the interior, but their ends are big and athletic enough to cover some of that deficiency. Their weakness is on the back end.

The safeties are solid. The corners are problematic. Iowa will need to find a way to avoid the coverage busts that led to the open seams and deep routes to the outside. In addition, they replace three linebackers. Inexperience in the middle of the field in the second game of the season is a liability.

The match-up:

It is difficult to find a more even match-up. Iowa is and will be favored based on home field and the perceived rise of key skill position players. Yet, Iowa State finds itself on the rise as well and with more experience at key defensive positions than Iowa has.  Last year’s toe-to-toe match-up has a high probability of repeating itself.

Iowa will struggle to contain the Iowa State ground game if the offensive line progresses from the first game. Their linebackers will be tested to fill the right gaps and in coverage. If Iowa State is able to keep the Iowa defense off balance via a solid run game and vertical passing against a weak secondary, then there are plenty of points to be scored.

The most interesting match-up is the Iowa offense versus the improved Iowa State defense. Does Iowa State’s three-man umbrella coverage cause issues for Iowa’s preferred attack? Stanley is more than capable of accurately attacking the windows in coverage with his big arm. However, Iowa State’s ability to reduce options and close windows forces mistakes.

Does Iowa State’s run defense remain solid and force a more one dimensional attack from Iowa? If Iowa State hopes to win, then they must find a way to frustrate the Iowa run game. The key is Iowa State’s defensive front. If Bailey can provide pressure and the balance of the line holds and gets free to chase, then Iowa State gains an advantage.

The issue for Iowa State is covering delayed routes from the tight ends and backs and allowing Kempt the time to find open receivers down the field. Iowa poses a significant challenge to both and is adept at wreaking havoc in both areas. There is a legitimate argument for both teams in their ability to dictate to the other.

Preferred plan of attack

The Iowa State offense will need to attack the Iowa defense on the edges in the run game. Iowa State found room in 2017 on the edges and a more concerted effort must be put forth in 2018.

While it stands to reason that the weak point in the Iowa run defense will be in the interior, that is rarely the case regardless of personnel changes. Instead, the attack on the edges forces the talented pass rushers to play the run in the face of a direct attack. This neutralizes their pass rush, especially on play action plays, and provides big play cut back lanes against the perceived softness in the middle of the defense.

The passing game should be oriented around attacking the seams and the middle of the field in the mid-range while taking opportunistic shots down the field to the outside. That sounds comprehensive, but it really isn’t. Essentially, I want to see if Iowa’s new linebackers can cover. If they struggle, then the Iowa defense will be on its heels.

Defensively, Iowa State needs to vary its attack with man under coverage. I believe Iowa will seek to establish an identity in its vertical passing game. Iowa State needs to play disciplined in two and three man deep zones to prevent big plays. At the same time, they need to cover the delayed under routes effectively. Dropping deep five across leaves them vulnerable, however, combo man coverage under the deep zone can frustrate the easy throws that allows Stanley to get comfortable.

Attack the edges and protect the quarterback while working over the young linebackers in coverage. Prevent the big play and frustrate the delays and misdirection in the passing game. I believe that is the key to a successful venture out East.

the “X” Files:

The “x” factor for the Iowa offense is their commitment to getting the ball in Fant’s hands. I can see no reason why he would be targeted fewer than 10 times in any one ball game. He is a game changer in every sense of the word and a mismatch at every level of the defense. Iowa must target Fant early and often and cause an inordinately large focus on slowing down his impact.

The “x” factor for the Iowa defense is the play of their corners. I suspect you thought I would say linebacker, but no. If Iowa’s corners can avoid getting beat deep and play solidly in containing the outside run game, then Iowa State will have limited options to sustain drives. If the corners give up explosive plays and are handled by the blocking efforts of Iowa State’s wide receivers, then it will be a long day for the Eastern team’s faithful.

The “x” factor for Iowa State’s offense will be Kyle Kempt. Can Kempt stretch the defense vertically through accurate and well-timed deep shots? Iowa is least effective when they are playing back on their heels in an attempt to get the jump on containing deep threats. If Kempt can deal with pressure and hit deep five to six times, then Iowa State will find lanes to run through in their key running game.

The “x” factor for the Iowa State defense will be Greg Eisworth and Willie Harvey. I suspect these two players will have coverage responsibility on Fant and Hockenson and will be key in the coverage of delay routes. In addition, both will be key support players in stopping the run. They will have to read their keys and play with great preparation in order to limit Iowa’s offensive efficiency.

Expected headlines:

I expect to be writing on Sunday about either of the following:

*** Iowa with a solid victory based on key turnovers and a better than expected running attack; or

*** Iowa State with a statement victory behind a salty defense and the legs of Montgomery and friends (I wish the backup running back was named Ward – for you older readers).

There is an opportunity for either team to put a hurting on the other in this game. The likely scenario is a game decided late with a final margin of fewer than 7 points.

Iowa State is Iowa’s equal in many respects and only history separates the expectations for each team. The difference in the season prospects rests in Iowa’s pathetic schedule. A win for Iowa State sets the stage for a season of progress while a loss is not devastating in any respect.

Iowa State is hungry and has something to prove here. Iowa seeks to keep them in their place (perception not reality). I expect inspired play from the Cyclones and believe that Matt Campbell will demand it. Solving the Iowa puzzle is a primary building block in the ascension of the program and little will be left on the field.

Victory hinges on Iowa State’s mindset and will as much as it does on scheme and talent. Iowa State must match Iowa’s physicality and provide an extra punch on both sides of the ball. Bring the mental side in line with the physical talent and Iowa State will be the better team. Waver and the puzzle for the Campbell era will remain unsolved.

Jay Jordan

editor

A graduate of Parkersburg High School, Iowa State University, and SMU Dedman School of Law. I am a practicing attorney and business consultant in the morning and an armchair quarterback in the afternoon. I played at Iowa State under Jim Walden. Turned a football obsessed hobby in to writing beginning with a stint at Wide Right and Natty Lite during the 2015 season. I am currently the Film Room writer and contributor at landgrantguantlet.com, will be a co-host on Big 12 recruiting podcast, The OV, and am an analyst here at Cylcone Fanatic.