Jul 16, 2018; Frisco, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell speaks to the media during Big 12 football media days at the Ford Center at the Star. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
I was not able to complete the previews in their full glory due to time and availability constraints, therefore, we move ahead in our game action.
I am going to give a quick hit preview of the final three games with some important considerations, then move into some thoughts about what I hope to see in the 2018 season.
Game 10 – Baylor
The Baylor game is frightening to me. Baylor is expected to be better as a young team is rebuilding its numbers with talented players under the direction of a talented coach. The frightening part is that Iowa State will likely be favored in this game, yet, Baylor may be pushing for bowl eligibility the same as Iowa State, making for a dangerous game.
Baylor’s strength will be its speed on the outside. Denzel Mims will lead a speedy set of receivers that will threaten deep, a sight we are used to seeing from Baylor. The offensive line should improve, though I believe they will be a lower tier unit in the league. The key for their offensive consistency will be their ability to generate a threat in the run game.
Defensively, Phil Snow is an ultra-aggressive coach. His Temple units were salty and provided relentless pressure on the offense. He has not had the horses at Baylor to implement his scheme-yet. They aren’t there yet, but I expect a defensive improvement and an uptick in pressure.
Iowa State will have to be prepared to exploit the pressure by throwing quickly into vacated zones and mount a competent running game in order to gain a foothold against them. There will be deep opportunities like there were in 2017 and hitting them will be important.
Defensively, Iowa State will need to be disciplined as they will face another quarterback with the ability to extend plays and break down the defense. This is particularly dangerous with Baylor as the speed on the outside can shake loose very quickly. Be it Brewer or McClendon at quarterback, either can extend a play and move the chains with their legs. The task is to keep the QB contained and the receivers from getting behind the safeties.
Iowa State should win this game at home, but it is far from a given. A solid and well-rounded effort will be needed to corral the Bears. Senior leadership in the form of Kyle Kempt, Marcel Spears, and Willie Harvey will be very important. This is another must win if Iowa State is to stay on the upward trajectory.
Game 11 – Texas
I am still torn on Texas. I don’t know yet if Tom Herman has the offense sorted out. They will be more efficient than last year, but I am not sold on a performance commensurate with their perceived talent ceiling. However, they will be just as solid on defense as they were in 2017.
The one thing I do know is that Iowa State has had no answer for the Texas defense in the two contests during the Matt Campbell era. Whether Texas is a middling team again or driving for the Big 12 championship game, Iowa State must adjust its play against Texas and find a way to compete on offense.
In two contests, one against a Charlie Strong defense and one against a Todd Orlando defense, Iowa State has managed one touchdown and two field goals. That is it. Anemic may be an appropriate word. Regardless of Texas’ status or record, they pose the largest challenge to the Iowa State offense of any team.
The key to moving the ball is running the ball. Surprise. 98 yards and 10 yards are all that Iowa State has been able to generate in the previous two games. Iowa State needs at least a 125-yard effort in order to remain competitive in this contest. The offensive line is the key to that metric.
Texas has been able to cover Iowa State’s receivers in man coverage leaving them free to blitz and surround the run game with additional players. The 2018 receiving corp offers an opportunity to beat man coverage. In particular, the tight ends and running backs in receiving positions on delays and pop pass concepts.
Iowa State to break through against Texas, they will need to threaten the defense, slow it down, by gaining yards over the pressure and winning match-ups with their tight ends and running backs. That means they will have to deploy play concepts we have not seen in the past. I do not have a feel as to whether those concepts will appear in 2018.
I am expecting a loss in Austin. It can be competitive with some adjustments on offense, but I am wholly uncertain as to whether ISU will deploy, or is capable of deploying, the necessary concepts. This game is an indicator game for me with regard to the program status and an evaluation of the 2018 season. A competitive game will be a good indicator of future prospects, a struggle will indicate the breadth of development still required.
Game 12 – Kansas State
Just win already. Snakebitten, a confundus charm, or lack of confidence. Iowa State has knocked on the door of winning this game for at least the last 4 years while finding a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
There is no mystery here. Kansas State is as constant as the tides. There is no talent gap here, in fact, Iowa State will likely field the more talented roster. It comes down to whether the mental and physical grind of putting together four disciplined quarters of football can be overcome.
The key to beating Kansas State lies in taking away their quarterback’s ability to run the ball effectively. Kansas State’s entire scheme is centered on the quarterback’s ability to gain yards in the running game. Everything revolves and is derivative of that goal. By the 12th game, we will long know whether Iowa State has been adept at doing so.
The defense must play with an eye towards containing the quarterback. The difference this year is the possibility that the secondary can survive in man coverage, therefore, allowing an extra man or two to be utilized in containing and pressuring the quarterback. If Iowa State can do that, then there is an opportunity to gain a winning margin.
Kansas State will be solid on defense, but once again vulnerable to the deep passing game. This is partly due to their concept (see Iowa) and partly due to a lower level of secondary talent. I expect Iowa State to score here and to do so with big plays. Taking shots is important in this game, deploying any high risk plays available will be important. Aggressive play calling and execution will lead to a victory.
I don’t know that anyone can predict a victory for Iowa State here, but it is yet another must-win game. It is time to get a win at home and heat up this burgeoning rivalry.
Body of Work Speculation
I have high expectations for the 2018 season. However, those expectations are contingent on one primary factor — early season preparedness. If Iowa State can pull off an early upset during the gauntlet portion of the schedule, then the confidence level should rise and the “must win” portion of the schedule will be manageable.
Iowa State must come out early with a sense of urgency and comfort in their plans. Certainly, adjustments will be made, but early season contests are often decided based on preparedness and urgency. I believe Matt Campbell has a much better feel for this team in 2018 than he has in either of the first two seasons.
In 2016, the staff did not know what they had. By the final four games, they had dialed in on personnel and scheme and played solidly. In 2017, adversity struck that called in to question all of the early season preparation, yet the staff was able to adjust and create a perfect storm of efficiency leading to upsets and solid play ahead of schedule based on roster reconstruction. This year, I believe they know what they have and how they want to use it and that should lead to a solid attack and solid play in the early part of the season.
If Iowa State plays up to par through the first seven games of the year, they should hit the “must win” portion at 4-3 or 5-2. If so, a 4-1 finish to the season would become probable, not possible. If Iowa State struggles, or plays well and still loses, and hits game 8 at 2-5 or 3-4, then there will be no margin for error and the team psyche will be called to task.
Both of the above scenarios are possible which makes this season impossible to predict with any certainty. The one thing I do know is that the talent displayed on the field both among the starters and among the depth players will be greater than at any time in recent memory. When Iowa State has had talented rosters, they have won games. The talent upgrade bolsters my confidence and leads me to lean towards the positive progression continuing in 2018.
Quick Hit Thoughts on the eve of the season
- The depth chart was stunning to me. It included a large number of names in the two deeps who are first or second-year players that have not been discussed by observers like myself as being in play for secondary roles in 2018.
- I do not believe Matt Campbell puts much stock in the depth chart, but this one was different due to its make up. It can be analyzed both positively and negatively.
- Positive — Josh Johnson, Tucker Robertson, Charlie Kolar, Joey Ramos, Mike Rose, and Jake Hummel are all guys whom I pegged in recruiting as talented players who would play early. The fact that they have pushed their way on to the depth chart this early is a great sign for the program as their talent has translated and developed early. It is also a testament to the college readiness of the recruiting classes signed by the staff. Their emergence provides added depth and projects well for this season and beyond.
- Negative — are the new names there because the expected performers regressed and are therefore indicative of a roster that is less talented than expected? That is possible. In addition, youth is prone to mistakes, and if that youth is called upon, a regression in progress is to be expected.
- I lean to the positive take here but suspect it is a mixed bag at certain positions. As a fan, I am excited to see these guys get opportunities and to see who else emerges for the future. Gone are the days of age equaling default status, instead there is a meritocracy emerging that is key at winning programs.
- I have a full expectation that the play of ISU’s safeties will be significantly upgraded and result in scheme flexibility and added aggression in the defensive packages.
- Jamahl Johnson and Enyi Uwazurike must have solid years. I suspect they will have breakout campaigns. Added to Lima and Bailey’s proven production, the defensive line will be a handful for all teams on their schedule.
- Mike Rose’s high school film revealed a player with a sophisticated understanding of his reads and a quick decision-making process that added to solid athleticism. He indicated a high-level understanding of scheme and preparedness unusual for high school linebackers. His ascendance is not surprising and there will be a higher level of middle linebacker play in 2018.
- The offensive line remains a concern. It is the unit that takes the longest period of time to develop. It remains subpar in my opinion and will be the determining factor in Iowa State’s ability to score the requisite amount of points to win the games they expect to. Teams with less talent can play close due to a subpar performance by the offensive line. However, I do expect it to be better than the 2017 version.
- If David Montgomery can be given enough room to make his initial cuts and decisions at the line of scrimmage versus a yard or two behind the line, he will do significant damage to Big 12 defenses.
- If David Montgomery does damage, then Hakeem Butler and Matthew Eaton will punish defenses with position and underrated speed. Provided Butler improves his concentration on routine catches. Drops must be limited.
- Iowa State’s inventive defensive scheme will be copied and attacked by offenses with power running and unaccounted for delay routes. Payne and Peavy have to have outstanding seasons in order to allow for the multiple and derivative looks that will be deployed to be successful. They will.
- I am predicting a close game in the opener because SDSU is a solid team that plays a difficult style. However, I will be disappointed if Iowa State does not show superior strength across the board. That is what I will be looking for. Greater strength and speed across the board. A conservative approach to the game with strength that will not be threatened. Accomplish that and the gap between Iowa and Oklahoma can be assumed to have tightened.
- I better see these tight ends involved in a game-breaking manner. There is no reason I can see that the three-headed monster at that position should not be a concern for every defensive coordinator. Tight end involvement in the passing game, particularly the red zone, will be a new threat and expands the capabilities of increased speed on the edges. It is essential that they threaten the hook zone and the deep seam.
- Will the kicking game be solid? Returns should be better where there is an opportunity because of Nwangu’s speed and vision. ISU has been spoiled by solid field goal kicking, will that continue with the new faces? Color me concerned.
- How does the defense adjust to and account for quarterback mobility? If they are able to contain and limit that threat, then the defense will click. If the mobile quarterbacks are able to get first downs, especially on third down, with their feet, or extend plays, then a regression should be expected. SDSU will give us a solid clue as to how that may manifest in 2018.
- Is there a chip on this teams shoulder? Is there motivation where expectations are higher? Is there overconfidence? 2017 was a team with an edge. The edge for 2018 should be created because they are likely to be underdogs in five of the first seven games. A drive to breakthrough and “arrive” should be burning in this team. If it isn’t, then the first seven opponents will chew them up.
What I am Looking for on Saturday
I will be watching for the following when Iowa State has the ball:
- Tight Ends running routes inside and making catches.
- Is there any push up front and are they able to hold their positional assignments.
- Kyle Kempt’s decision making and the risk/reward nature of those passes.
- How fast is Tarique Milton and will DeShaunte Jones emerge as a factor from the slot.
- Route development and changes in play design from 2017.
I will be watching for the following when SDSU has the ball:
- JaQuan Bailey’s pass rush discipline and proficiency. Bailey at 251 as listed on the depth chart tells me something. He may be another notch of serious this year and I want to see it on Saturday.
- Coverage ability indicators from the safeties.
- How multiple fronts are used and if there is a commitment to pressure in reliance on the coverage skills of the corners.
- A nasty disposition as a reflection of a building reputation for defensive play in Ames.
- Is the run defense formidable or has it regressed?
Strap in and strap it up. These first few games are going to be a treat. Enjoy the talent and the possibilities, it gets real Saturday night.