Matt Campbell is having a rough go during his first season in Ames, as this Cyclones squad is underperforming even last year’s standards with a 1-7 record on the year. Advanced stats, traditional metrics and eyeballs are all saying the same thing about Iowa State this year: they lack the talent to keep up in the Big 12, even this year’s mediocre version.
Still, people are right to be wary of Thursday nights in Ames. The Cyclones pushed Baylor there a month ago, though that’s a pretty heavy outlier in a season that began with a five-point loss to FBS Northern Iowa. The Sooners didn’t let Kansas sneak up on them, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll let Iowa State, either. But the Cyclones have a handful of weapons and, if they play the perfect game, they could make things interesting.
Here’s what the tape says about Iowa State:
Watching Iowa State’s offense is like watching a little kid try on his father’s overcoat, or Cinderella’s sisters try on her shoe: it doesn’t quite fit.
The stats say that State runs more than it passes, and that’s true—barely. But a lot of those runs lately have been garbage time clock-eaters, and quarterback Joel Lanning takes a lot of the carries himself. Lanning led the Cyclones in rushing attempts against Kansas State even though he split the game with Jacob Park.
The running game shouldn’t be that bad. Mike Warren, after all, was a preseason all-Big 12 selection right next to Samaje Perine. For reasons no one seems to understand, Warren got just six carries against Kansas State in a close game that he could have swung. True freshman David Montgomery is getting more and more touches these days, so it will be interesting to see who gets the most opportunities against OU.
The Cyclones are a tale of two quarterbacks—there’s Lanning, the redshirt junior running threat, and Park, the sophomore with the better arm. It’s anyone’s guess who will start on Thursday, but my money’s on Park. Campbell loves the versatility Lanning gives him, but Park does a better job running the spread.
In the passing game, the big name to remember is Allen Lazard. Lazard is 6-foot-5 and bulky, a tight end on the outside. He’ll line up all over the field: in the slot, over the numbers, nearside, farside. Iowa State likes to line up with trips to the right and Lazard by himself on the other side. That means we’ll be seeing lots Jordan Thomas vs. Lazard one-on-one. Good luck, Jordan.
The Cyclones don’t run much tempo, but their pace is so lethargic that they’ll take a quick snap every once in awhile just to see if they can catch the defense napping (which, against the Sooners, they probably can). I like the system Campbell and OC Tom Manning are running, but they don’t have the personnel—mostly the receivers—to make it click yet.
Iowa State’s 4-3 defense is a soggy snoozefest that doesn’t do anything particularly well, except maybe challenge the inside running game. The Cyclones rarely bring more than four guys, and a talented quarterback should be able to find holes in their zone.
That’s not to say the Cyclones don’t have talent back there. Guys to keep an eye on include cornerback D’Andre Payne, a former four-star recruit who flies to the ball and specializes in open-field tackles. Safety Kamari Cotton-Moya is just as comfortable playing the single-high safety as he is walking up in the box or covering one-on-one. And linebacker Willie Harvey is a sure tackler who leads the team with 5.5 tackles for loss.
Still, the Cyclones defense could benefit from a lot more aggressiveness. Quarterbacks have too much time against them, and tend to figure them out even if they struggle initially (like Shane Buechele and the Longhorns, who scored just 3 points before halftime and then 21 in the third quarter).
I think the Cyclones will struggle with OU’s speed, especially players like Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook. Sooners fans will recognize defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s big corner cushions—he’s trying his best not to get burned. But the Cyclones are only equipped to stop so many things. Even if their secondary does smother the OU passing game, Baker will burn them with his legs or start dropping off passes to guys like Mixon and Dimitri Flowers.
Occasionally Heacock will dial up a corner blitz or let cornerback Brian Peavy press his receiver at the line. Generally, though, the Cyclones play conservative and end up getting beat.
OU should take this opportunity and, once again, audition some guys for bigger roles down the stretch. I see lots of chances for guys like Kapri Doucet and Emmanuel Beal to pick up a sack, and maybe Jordan Thomas can pull down another interception (the Cyclones have thrown six).
The biggest thing will be coming out of Ames healthy(ish) and ready to go. No need to overwork Mixon or throw every pass to Westbrook. We’re getting to the point in the season where OU’s list of contributors is more or less set. Thursday may be the last chance to add to it.