Nov 4, 2017; Morgantown, WV, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back David Montgomery (32) runs the ball during the third quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
There are two games that Iowa State gave away in 2017. One was against Oklahoma State, the other versus West Virginia. In 2018, the two games are back-to-back and represent “prove it” games at the end of a “prove it” stretch in the schedule.
Game 7 – West Virginia
There is a convergence in the “force” of the schedule for these two teams. West Virginia opens the season with two Power 5 opponents that will test their mettle. Tennessee should be a comfortable win, but NC State is as salty as they come. Heading into the contest in Ames, WVU plays primarily lower-tier Big 12 schools, thus giving them the opportunity to wrap up an impressive record heading into the back half of the season.
After the Iowa State game, West Virginia plays the perceived conference heavyweights. The teams they have struggled to beat. The teams that have derailed their opportunities for a breakthrough campaign. If Will Grier is to make a Heisman run, it will begin in Ames.
Iowa State, in contrast, catches the Mountaineers at the end of a brutal start to the season where Iowa State plays the top brass week after week. While the league as a whole presents challenges each and every week, if there is quality in Ames, then they should be favored in all but one of the final five games.
However, a large part of that depends on how many wins Iowa State has accumulated in the first six games. If Iowa State has managed at least three wins in the first six, then the West Virginia game becomes a pivotal game in their season and post-season prospects.
The most important position on the field, unless you are Army, is the quarterback. West Virginia has the best quarterback in the conference. Add to that the league’s receptions leader and red zone savant David Sills, and you have the premier passing game battery in the Big 12.
The running game will miss Justin Crawford’s elusiveness, but McCoy and Pettaway are solid battering rams if nothing else. The offensive line is solid, huge, and mostly returning. That bodes well for providing balance in games against teams that will force you to run the ball in order to crack the code (Tennessee, NC State, Kansas State, TCU, and Iowa State).
Defensively, West Virginia lost some top tacklers and depth due to a rash of transfers in the spring. However, Ezekiel Rose, who put the Cyclones on notice last year, returns along with David Long at linebacker, an experienced secondary, and freshman Dante Sills on the line.
Tony Gibson’s aggressive 3-3 stack will be in a much better position this season. Perhaps not the threatening unit that he had in 2016, but certainly a step or two ahead of last year’s mini-meltdown. They should be solid in zero coverage behind their creative blitz schemes. This bodes well for their winning prospects.
West Virginia wins most often when they hold their opponents under 30 points. In the 20 losses WVU has suffered since 2014, 17 of those have come when their opponents have scored more than 30 points. The three exceptions are Kansas State twice and Texas last year. Style of play was the contributing factor in those losses. The defense will be capable of holding opponents under 30 points this season and that will make West Virginia a formidable matchup for all opponents.
Iowa State suffered through a difficult start in 2017 to mount a comeback that should have been completed. West Virginia gashed Iowa State on the ground early, but could not make the big plays in the passing game to continue their scoring onslaught.
Iowa State had an ailing Kyle Kempt and scratched and clawed against the best defensive performance that West Virginia deployed in 2017. A healthy Kempt might have turned the tide.
Of particular note to me was the 2016 game. Iowa State was down by five points at the half before surrendering to an additional barrage of deep balls in the second half. Absent poor safety play throughout that game, Iowa State was equal with a ten win team.
Based on that, it is my opinion that Iowa State matches up very well with West Virginia. West Virginia has outstanding talent at certain positions, but they do not outclass Iowa State as a whole. Iowa State’s 2018 roster is capable of standing toe-to-toe with West Virginia’s.
The key to the match-up is the play of Iowa State’s offensive line and the placement and preparation of the tight ends and F back.
If Iowa State can contain the West Virginia front and pick up blitzes with the tight ends and the F back, then there will be an opportunity to hit hot receivers and gash to the third level in the running game. That is the key to beating the Tony Gibson defense. Easier said than done, but there is a reasonable expectation that more than 30 points can be scored.
The danger in the match-up is that the safeties struggle in coverage and Grier picks them apart with his downfield throws. Iowa State will be better in this area, but West Virginia will stress the best secondaries in the country.
Preferred Plan of Attack:
The Iowa State offense should show the same level of patience that they did in 2017. Grind the run game and hit short, controlled passes on hot routes or by design. Then, take shots down the deep middle and to the mid-range on the edge. Quite simple, very fundamental, pretty conservative, and imminently executable by the Iowa State offense.
West Virginia, more than other Big 12 foes, will deploy man coverage. It is a calculated gamble because they bring pressure that shrinks the time allotted for tight coverage. However, if the blitz is picked up, then I like the chances of Iowa State’s receivers running crossing routes and the WVU defenders in chase positions.
If you recall the short catch and long run by Allen Lazard in 2016, that is an example of a simple and easy way to attack the West Virginia defense. Blitz pick-up, drag route, dump pass, and run. I like Iowa State’s chances in those match-ups.
Defensively, I am inclined to lean towards a pressure package here, but I think that would be a mistake against Grier. He is too good to give him easy throws. A delayed blitz on key down and distances is ok, and run blitzes aimed at filling gaps against the patented WVU inside zone are warranted. But, blitzes for pressure will leave the secondary too exposed against quality throwers and receivers.
Instead, West Virginia gains an advantage in attacking a box in the field with their passing game. Imagine a box that starts at about 12 yards past the line of scrimmage, extends to about 25 yards past the line of scrimmage, and is contained within the numbers. Their route trees attack this zone routinely (as do many, to be fair) and West Virginia frees up their running game by hitting their receivers in this area of the field.
Grier can throw to all points on the field, but he targets the above-described zone often. WVU uses a variety of routes to threaten this zone and the quickness of Gary Jennings and the size of David Sills play perfectly for this plan of attack.
Iowa State needs to concentrate its coverage in this box. They can drop their linebackers a bit deeper than usual in a Tampa 2 type scheme that will shrink the throwing windows into this zone. In addition, the safety play, be it in 2 deep, 3 deep, or quarters needs to be focused on keeping the plays within the target zone. Essentially, adjust the coverage drops in zone coverage to squeeze the 12 to 25-yard zone with the safeties and linebackers. If Iowa State can accomplish that, then they will provide some frustration for Will Grier and crew.
The “X” Files:
The “X” factor for the West Virginia offense is Kennedy McCoy and Martell Pettaway. Physical running on the interior will neutralize any coverage adjustments Iowa State makes in this game. If McCoy and Pettaway can grind away, then things will open up for Grier and Iowa State will have to score to win.
The “X” factor for the West Virginia defense is Ezekiel Rose. Disruption on the scale Rose disrupted the offense in 2017 will make for a hard adjustment for Iowa State. Quarterback pressure and backfield pressure will be a significant barrier to Iowa State’s offensive production.
The “X” factor for the Iowa State offense is the collective play of the offensive line. Quite simply, if the offensive line can control the line of scrimmage, then Iowa State’s skill players will be in a position to dominate this game. In order to do so, they will have to be physical and athletic. Hold their ground and good things will happen.
The “X” factor for the Iowa State defense is D’Andre Payne. Payne had one of the best interceptions I have ever seen against West Virginia last year. However, he also gave up two touchdowns and struggled with the size and physicality of David Sills. I would like to see Payne get the better of the match-up this year and, if he does, it will mean good things for the Iowa State defense.
I expect to be writing on the Sunday after either of the following:
- ISU positioned to push to the top of the conference; or
- String of must-win games become MUST win games.
How many pivotal games in a row can you have in a season? At least four for Iowa State (TCU, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Texas Tech).
Iowa State and West Virginia are a largely even match at pivotal points in the season for each team. The mental make-up and motivational status of each team will be pivotal in this game. There is potential for this to be a “look ahead” game for West Virginia. There is potential for this to be a desperation game for Iowa State.
The likely positioning for the game is that each team will be looking to make a mark. That should lead to an intense match-up in Ames. Iowa State will be battle tested and prepared for such a contest.
I expect Iowa State to show a higher level of physicality in this game than what we have seen previously. There is an element of finesse to West Virginia’s approach that leaves open the possibility that they can be physically beaten. ISU is likely to take that approach and, as such, I expect to see the physical playmakers with prominent performances in this game.
A win in game 7 is likely to push Iowa State into a position to either contend for the conference title with early success or create a solid win going into a string of games where wins will be expected. Four up and three down is a reasonable expectation at this point in the season, but five wins would be best — and I believe that is obtainable with a win against West Virginia.