Dec 5, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State running back Breece Hall (28) rushes during their football game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday. Iowa State takes a 21-0 lead over West Virginia into halftime. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports
They saw the speed. The skill. The vision.
But Iowa State’s coaches weren’t entirely sure how tailback Breece Hall’s myriad talents would translate to the field until they tabbed him as the featured ball carrier last October at West Virginia.
“I think we were navigating as a football program, trying to find a true starting tailback for us,” Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said Tuesday in advance of Saturday’s 3 p.m. Fiesta Bowl matchup between his No. 10 team (8-3) and 25th-ranked Oregon (4-2). “And that was probably the midpoint of the season a year ago, playing an away game at West Virginia, where Breece really, I felt like, took the reins of not only that running back position but also kind of the standard of expectation that we have for all of our positions and how you practice, how you prepare. Being a young guy, to be able to do that so early in his career, that’s a tribute to him. But I thought he put it together by the midway point of his freshman year, and I think a lot of his production has shown since then.”
Hall has now started 17 games in his young career — and this season he’s gained at least 75 yards and rushed for a touchdown (or more) in each of the Cyclones’ 11 games.
The Wichita, Kan., native ranks second nationally in rushing yards with 1,436 and is tied for second with 19 touchdowns on the ground.
Bottom line: If ISU is to win its first New Year’s Six bowl game, Hall will need to showcase his powerful, swift and darting talents early and often, as usual.
And he’ll have to contend with a strong Oregon front seven led by freakish 6-5, 250-pound defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux — who is also a standout sophomore.
“Obviously he’s probably the best D-end in college football so he’s going to demand a lot of attention,” Hall said. “So, really, you’re always going to know where he is at as far as the run game, but it’s probably more the pass game, just so you can get those blocks and so you can make him just, like, you can’t give him what he wants. So he’s going to demand a lot of attention, but you still just got to play your game. And you can’t let one player dictate what you do. So for me, I just take the same approach and just stay true to what I do because coach Campbell, he always tells me to do the little things right and your natural talent will take over. I feel like every time I do that, I’ll be in a good place.”
Balance has been a key component for the Cyclones’ explosive offense and much of that success has hinged in improved offensive line play.
ISU — despite losing one of its best O-lineman, Trevor Downing, in the season opener — has been rock solid up front for both the run and passing game. Among teams that have played at least nine games this season, the Cyclones rank 10th in sacks allowed (1.36 per game) and 10th in yards per carry (5.29).
“You know, it’s a tough position,” all-Big 12 center Colin Newell said. “It’s a position that takes a while to develop, and coach Campbell, (offensive line) coach (Jeff) Myers, (offensive coordinator Tom) Manning, all those guys have done an absolutely wonderful job just developing us. It’s a learned position, and they’ve done a good job of teaching us. I feel like even the guys who have come before us have been a huge part of the success that we’ve been able to build upon and continue to grow with. So I think it’s just a — Coach Myers has done a fantastic job with us. And I think he’s a huge part of our success, getting us ready every single week, getting extra work with us, extra film, helping us any way he can to make sure that we’re in the best position possible. I think a lot of credit goes to him.”
Campbell, Manning and Myers will be trying to find ways to pierce a Ducks defense that has at times been vulnerable to both strong rushing and passing attacks. They allow an average of 409.5 yards per game — and 160 of those yards come on the ground.
“They have some guys that are really good,” ISU star tight end Charlie Kolar said. “It’s exciting for us to get to play in a New Year’s Six (bowl). We get to play against good defenses and really good teams — but (we’re) just trying to find ways to attack each one, because every player has strengths and every player has weaknesses. So try the best we can to figure out how to attack those different ones.”
That starts up front, then flows through Hall, who before last season’s West Virginia win had only provided glimpses of the standout player he would become.
Up until then, he’d carried the ball 18 times in four games.
For comparison, Sheldon Croney had 28 carries at that point and Johnnie Lang had 39.
But Hall rapidly and decisively rose through the ranks because of devotion to his craft and has only accelerated his growth since.
Now he’s a headliner for the Cyclones on their biggest-ever stage — one year removed from a learning experience-fueled bowl loss to college football blue blood Notre Dame.
“I just feel like it’s a different level of confidence we’re coming in with this year,” Hall said. “We know how good our offense is and we know how dangerous we can be when we’re all on the same page. So I just feel like (the) whole vibe is completely different from last year. And I just feel like we’re coming in knowing that we can score anytime, knowing we can score any play, and knowing how dangerous we are when we’re all doing our 1/11th.”
TIGHT END TRIPLE THREAT
Kolar emerged as one of the nation’s best tight ends last season, but he’s flanked by two seniors at the position in Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner that helped make that possible.
ISU boasts one of the top tight end rooms in the country — and that’s a far cry from Campbell’s first season where the offense rarely went beyond 11-personnel.
“Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do, but definitely proud of how the room has grown, but more proud of how the team has grown,” said Kolar, who needs nine receiving yards to become the Cyclones’ all-time leader at his position. “That’s the ultimate goal, is how the small part, the small room, plays a role in the whole team. That’s the real sense of pride we have.”
Kolar and company received some high praise from Oregon star D-end Kayvon Thibodeaux, too.
When asked about how physical ISU’s offense appears, Thibodeaux singled out Kolar’s position group first.
“If you ask me, it’s because of their tight ends — their tight ends and their running backs,” Thibodeaux said. “They’re running physical. They’re coming at you. They’re looking for the kill shot. They look like they take advantage of people who underestimate them.”
“I would definitely give it to two people. I would give it to coach (Nate) Scheelhaase, our receiver coach. Just getting on Zoom calls with me, making sure that I understood the playbook, that I understood the little things that could carry me very far. And then the second person, I would definitely have to give it to Brock (Purdy). Brock helped me tremendously. He forced me to come over to his apartment to watch film with him. He told me, hey, this is the time that we’re going to throw. I’m picking you up, and if you aren’t there — like, he would give me no choice but to be there. So I would definitely give it to those two people. Without them and without their faith and belief in me, I don’t think I’m doing some of the things that I’m doing this year.” —top ISU receiver and JUCO transfer Xavier Hutchinson on who helped him the most in his first season in Ames.