This summer, I plan to write wildly speculative previews for every Iowa State football game in 2018. I, like everyone else, begin rank speculation in game-by-game match-ups in order derive an expectation for the season’s win total. As such, I thought I would share a window in to my thoughts.
I, and others, have noted there are some questions that need to be answered at Iowa State. The offensive line play and the new safeties jump to the front of my mind. However, there are some established assumptions from which I speculate.
*** The 2018 roster is deeper, more experienced, and more athletic than the 2017 roster. It might be the most athletically explosive we have seen at Iowa State. The talent may be raw in some places, but the new pieces are no longer “also-ran” recruits without a Big 12 pedigree. In fact, Iowa State’s talent is solidly in the middle of the Big 12 and performance expectations should hit a floor at that level.
*** Kyle Kempt has experience and more importantly, experience in high pressure situations in big games. He has had success in those situations. In addition, he is a 66 percent passer who does not turn the ball over. The only other passer in the league with those credentials was the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield. That is an advantage for Iowa State.
*** The offensive line is simply a question mark. I expect improvement from the returning players and the talent upgrade in the new starters to yield a league average unit. A league average unit will free up a dynamic runner and open the possibility of a true power spread look. Note: add in Kene Nwangwu, Sheldon Croney, and specialists like Re-al Mitchell and Johnnie Lang – and Montgomery increases output with fewer touches.
*** The defense allowed only 20.6 points per game last season. Let that sink in to those who tout the “defenseless” Big 12. It was a quantum leap from 2016. I do not expect a reversion, and I do not expect quite the same level of dominance. But, that is just caution on my part. The truth is that the key contributors to that defensive performance all return this fall. The new pieces bring greater instinct and athleticism for their positions than those they replace. I expect this defense to continue to stop the run and be stingy against the pass.
*** Those assumptions set the basis for my thoughts. I will add in some scheme expectations as we analyze the games, but at the outset, I find it difficult to deviate from the positive points listed above. Of course, there are and can be weaknesses that can be exploited. I will dive in to those a bit as well.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the pensieve and see what lies ahead.
Game 1 – South Dakota State
Week 1 brings an FCS powerhouse to Ames. SDSU appeared in last year’s semi-finals at the FCS level and they are projected to make a run to the same level. Per usual, Iowa State schedules up in scheduling down.
SDSU was 11-3 in 2017, including a regular season victory against perennial champion North Dakota State. One of their two regular season losses was to a UNI team that Iowa State handled in the first game of the season last year. However, SDSU flipped the script on them in the playoffs and won going away.
SDSU graduated two dominant pass catchers. Dallas Goedert and the receiver Weinicke were all-timers. Goedert was a high draft pick and will playing on Sunday. In addition, SDSU loses a couple of key offensive line and defensive line pieces. They will need to replace those pieces in order to maintain the offensive punch they are accustomed to.
On the flip side, SDSU brings back a four-year starter at quarterback in Taryn Christion. He is a solid passer and rushed for more than 500 yards in 2017. The running back tandem returns with Mikey Daniels power running being the key component. On defense, All-American Christian Rozeboom returns to lead a talented linebacking corp.
This is a team that is used to winning and has the experience to do so. Several publications put Iowa State on the upset watch list, and SDSU is capable of doing just that. In 2016, TCU invited the Jackrabbits to Ft. Worth and struggled to outscore them. TCU won late in the game and it took 60 points to do it.
The 2018 SDSU Jackrabbits will likely depend more on the running game and the running of its quarterback than past versions, however, that makes them no less potent. The 2017 defense was porous and though they expect improvement, an inexperienced defensive line may hamper those efforts. That means they will be in a comfortable spot where scoring is the key and they will be good at it.
In watching film of the Jackrabbits, I see an offensive scheme similar to that deployed by West Virginia. They attack the seams vertically based off of play action passing and a solid running game.
The running game is read-option based with a real threat at quarterback. The passing game is bolstered by run game efficiency and the ability to extend plays by the quarterback.
From a talent perspective, Iowa State is significantly more talented at each position than this FCS opponent. That has not always been the case. SDSU sports some speed, but not to a level that ISU is outgunned at any one position. In particular, Iowa State’s size is a distinct advantage at every position.
Iowa State thrives on execution. They live by the quarterback’s decision making, the offensive line’s technique and discipline on the defensive side of the ball. SDSU thrives on creating confusion and false steps through its offensive scheme and attempts to play fundamentally sound defense.
Across the board, Iowa State has the advantage in this match-up, as expected. The primary equalizer between the squads is in the arm and head of Taryn Christion. Christion is a good enough quarterback to cause issues for any secondary and front that is chasing him. If he has time via an extended play or in the pocket, then he can cause problems for most defenses.
The challenge for Iowa State in this game is stopping the run cold, containing the quarterback, and methodically applying pressure by scoring at a high rate of efficiency. The indications are that Iowa State should be able to accomplish each of those as they face a similar dilemma each week in the Big 12.
Preferred Plan of attack:
The offensive plan for this game should lean heavily on the running game. First, the offensive line needs to gel in its coordinated run blocking effort. SDSU’s defensive line provides an opportunity to gain some confidence and accelerate that process. Second, the running backs are a mismatch for the SDSU defense and should be utilized extensively.
The running game will chew clock and keep the defense fresh against a dynamic offense. Controlling the pace of the game with high scoring drive efficiency will lead to a dominating performance.
Play action passing is the call for the air attack. Chase Allen, Dylan Soehner, Hakeem Butler, and Matthew Eaton have a significant size advantage and can threaten the underneath zones with positioning and counter-movement created by play action. Kempt can get comfortable with easy throws in the five to 15 yard windows if the running game provides a significant threat.
Defensively, Iowa State should deploy its four man front in this game with a switch to the three man package in obvious passing downs and distances. That is exploitable and predictable, but appears to have the highest probability of stoning the run game and containing the quarterback.
The defensive emphasis here is not on pressuring Christion for sacks. Instead, it is on pressuring him, by creating a tight push with lane discipline that forces Christion to read and deliver a pass on-time or early.
The secondary needs to keep the play in front of them. Combo zone on the back-end and press coverage from the experienced corners would be a difficult puzzle for SDSU to solve.
The “x” files:
The “X” factor for the SDSU offense is its ability to exploit inexperienced safeties deep via extended plays coupled with the quarterback’s running ability. If SDSU is able to create chunk yardage with broken play quarterback runs and extended play deep passes, then the Jackrabbits can score enough to overcome a conservative approach from Iowa State.
The “X” factor for the SDSU defense is pressure. SDSU may be forced to provide pressure via run and pass blitz packages. They will fear the one-on-one matchups with Iowa State’s size in the secondary, but they can disrupt Iowa State by blitzing the gaps and making Kempt attempt off-balance throws. A smart and aggressive blitz package can even the talent and size disparity if executed properly.
For ISU, the offensive “X” factor is speed in the slot. Deshaunte Jones, Tarique Milton, Kene Nwangwu, and Re-al Mitchell provide quickness and speed behind the blocking of the larger receivers that can create a steady diet of horizontal and vertical stretch. The ability of those players to work over the middle and short to the outside can stretch SDSU and open alignment based alleys for Montgomery in the running game.
Defensively, the ISU “X” factor is JaQuan Bailey. This is a good match-up for Bailey to assert himself as a pass rush factor for the 2018 season. If Bailey has progressed in his pass rush ability and discipline, then he should be disruptive in both the pass and run game. If SDSU has to slide protection or account for him with an additional player, then the talent at the other positions should account for the balance of the offense.
I expect to be writing about either of the following:
1 – A dominant performance by the Iowa State running game and defensive line that leads to a decisive victory; or…
2 – Iowa State struggles to establish the run and exhibits issues in the secondary that creates a less than encouraging narrow victory.
Make no mistake, SDSU can play and coach football. They are better than the UNI team Iowa State faced last season. If they are given a foothold or are able to grab a foothold in the running game, then look out.
Last season, SDSU lost two regular season games. In both of those games, their opponent absolutely stuffed the running game. That forced Christion to have to throw to win and he was terribly inconsistent in that effort. That is the key, forcing Christion to beat you by himself. He gets inaccurate and will turn the ball over when forced to do so.
The “forcing the QB to beat you with fundamental throws” motif will be a theme throughout these articles. In my wild speculation, it is the key to another uptick in program positioning for 2018. SDSU poses a challenge and test to Iowa State’s ability to do so.