Two of the tougher games on the ISU schedule are behind them in week 4. Akron comes to town having played the heavyweights on its schedule as well. For ISU, this game has “letdown” or “trap game” written all over it.
But, is Akron the team to put them in jeopardy?
Game 4 – Akron
Quietly, Akron was the MAC East champion last year. They recovered from a decisive loss to Iowa State in week 4 to go 6-2 in the MAC before succumbing to the superior talent of the Jason Candle led Toledo Rockets.
The ISU game represents a third road game in four games for Akron. The Zips will be looking to set the path for their MAC season with a strong effort in Ames.
Akron was anemic on offense last season due to rotating quarterbacks, one of which was a true freshman. This year, Kato Nelson, brings a much more experienced skill set to the table and will use his dual threat ability as the focal point of the offense.
The problem is that virtually the entire skill position cadre is new and unproven. Big play receiver Kwadarrius Smith returns as a speedy and legitimate deep threat. Outside of Smith and Nelson, the balance of the talent is unproven and the depth is a complete unknown.
In addition, Akron turns over half of its offensive line. The challenge for the the offensive coordinator is not just finding production for Nelson to work with, but to avoid exposing Nelson to injury while trying to find yards.
Defensively, the prospects are a bit brighter for the Zips. The entire two deep in the back 7 returns from a productive year in 2017. Akron can cover and support the run defense from the back. This unit created turnovers in 2017 that bailed out the offense. The question will be whether they are able to do the same in 2018.
The defensive front may be challenged early as key contributors to last year’s team will need to be replaced, but, if they can reach a serviceable level, the defense will be one of the MAC’s best units.
The problem on the defensive side is that Chuck Amato retired and there will be a new signal caller on the defensive side of the ball. While this may not be a major hit given the talent returning, there will likely be a disparity and learning curve in the transition from the venerable steady hand.
There just is not a lot to get excited about or feel threatened by in the 2018 version of the Zips. It will take a significant amount of luck and performances above the perceived talent level of the roster to win more than they lose in MAC play.
South Dakota State matches up with Iowa State better than Akron does.
On paper, there is a great disparity between these teams and it was apparent at times in last year’s contest. However, Akron was annoying and made the game far too interesting through two and a half quarters.
Reviewing my game notes from 2017, the thing that sticks out to me is that Iowa State failed to get any push against the Akron defensive front. The vaunted Akron secondary had little success containing Iowa State’s receivers and Montgomery was able to overcome his line and gain yards on the edge behind the wide receiver’s blocking.
Akron’s short-lived threat in 2017 was due to patience in their short passing game and an Iowa State pass defense that was still adjusting to its new scheme. Iowa State played too deep in its underneath zones allowing easy completions on third downs. Iowa State corrected that and began setting the underneath zone at the sticks after the Akron game. The adjustment resulted in a much saltier defensive scheme that paid dividends.
I expect that Iowa State will be prepared this time around to pressure a struggling Akron offense and yards will be hard to come by. Akron’s weakness plays in to Iowa State’s strength.
Offensively, Akron’s defense can cause some issues for ISU, but if the offense is patient, it is more talented than its opponent. Akron plays Nebraska and Northwestern prior to the Iowa State game. Northwestern, in particular, is a comparable squad to Iowa State and they should provide a solid blueprint for exploiting Akron’s defensive weaknesses.
Preferred plan of attack:
The Iowa State offense should waste no time in this game. Power football from the get-go with a sprinkling of down field throws. Draw the defense in, a couple of punts, a couple of scores, then fire the ball over the top to plunge in the dagger.
This game also sets up well to play some young talent to build some depth for the balance of the season. If there are freshman who are making a push for time, then there is the possibility to grab a lead that will allow for meaningful snaps heading in to the balance of the Big 12 schedule.
The Iowa State defense needs to play solid fundamental football here. Akron will try to take shots deep, so stay deep as the deepest in the secondary, keep the game in front of you, and force Akron to win and drive the ball. I do not believe they will be able to do it.
Nothing fancy in the scheme, play the base four man front with a heavy rotation and control the game. Iowa State has the ability to play vanilla defense and stifle an over-matched opponent. That is rare for ISU. Given that this is likely the only completely over-matched opponent on the schedule, I would like to see them succeed in doing so and build confidence for the balance of the season.
The “X” Files:
The “x” factor for the Akron offense is quarterback Kato Nelson. To consistently move the ball against Iowa State, Nelson will have to be sharp and ready to run. If he can run to either extend and shake loose the coverage or to make critical first downs, then Akron can present a challenge similar to 2017.
The “x” factor for the Akron defense….is the Akron offense. If Akron cannot sustain drives then the defense will play A LOT of downs and will get worn down by the ISU offense. Time of possession is a big factor for Akron in this game and controlling the clock is the key to an upset. If the Zips are forced to play defense for the majority of the game then there is little they can do to avoid a lopsided margin of loss.
The “x”factor for the Iowa State offense is Re-al Mitchell. It appears that Mitchell’s work in the spring will result in some special packages for him in the fall. Wild speculation and a dash of hope forecasts the use of these special packages in the two previous games, however, Akron provides the opportunity for ISU to expand its offensive packages. The risk involved here is mitigated and the opportunity to see the dynamic freshman’s full repertoire of skills will have arrived.
The “x” factor for the Iowa State defense will be the deep coverage of the safeties. Other than Greg Eisworth, the safety positions are a bit fluid. Be it Lawrence White, Braxton Lewis, Keontae Jones, DeMonte Ruth, D’Andre Payne, or someone else, they will have to prevent successful deep shots by Akron. It is imperative that Akron be held without the hope a deep strike can create.
I expect to be writing on Sunday about the following: Iowa State dominates and some future stars emerge.
1 – That is it. Anything less and this game will be a disappointment in my speculative mind (which may be a bit off due to summer heat).
It is entirely possible that if the games against Iowa and Oklahoma are disappointments, that Iowa State will be in a vulnerable position against a hungry MAC team. But, this isn’t Matt Campbell’s Toledo squad, and isn’t close to Jason Candle’s squad. Akron is a mid to low level MAC team and cannot match Iowa State’s quality.
This game is either a retrenchment after two tough games, or an additional statement in an impressive start to the year. Either way, there isn’t much to see here.
The thing to watch for is the infusion of young talent should the opportunity arise. With the new rule allowing freshman to play up to four games and still retain their redshirt status, this game falls at the perfect time to prepare them to play and provide an early look in the event injury or poor play dictates their use down the road.
It is a developmental game — after the course of the game is established. For a nerd like me, it makes it one of the more intriguing games of the season.