A sizeable problem
There are typically a number of variables on the football field that ultimately determine whether this will be a Hawkeye or Cyclone state in any given year.
Home-field advantage. Quarterback play. Special teams. Turnovers. Red-zone efficiency.
The list goes on.
Line play is another top priority annually. The team controlling the trenches with their big nasties almost always winds up being the team that, by the fourth quarter, takes control and delivers the knockout punch.
Every sport is complicated to a certain extent, but there are also ways to simplify the objective. Football is explained, in elementary terms, via the point of attack. If an offense or defense can’t compete up front, everything else becomes either imperative – i.e., zero margin for error – or irrelevant – i.e., zero chance of making a difference.
All indications point to new Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell being a wunderkind of sorts. He’s energetic. Efficient. He’s selling the Iowa State brand and marketing the program well. He’s blazing new trails on the recruiting front, luring a Rivals four-star Mississippi recruit away from numerous SEC schools and already landing 15 three-star athletes in his 2017 class.
In his inaugural season at the helm, Campbell inherited a 1,300-yard rusher in Mike Warren. A star receiver in Allen Lazard and an explosive complement in Trever Ryen. An experienced quarterback in Joel Lanning. Three starting defensive backs returned, as well as two linebackers, the kicker and the punter.
And yet, the gaping holes torn by graduation and injury along both the offensive and defensive lines virtually neutralize all of Iowa State’s potential assets. The Cyclones struggled mightily at the line of scrimmage in a season-opening loss to Northern Iowa, which created a domino effect on its entire gameplan. When you can’t run the ball – 25 carries for 51 net yards against the FCS Panthers – and you can’t stop the run – UNI racked up 232 yards at four yards a pop – that spells trouble.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes are stocked with grizzled veterans up front. On offense, five starters are back – albeit some at new positions. Familiar faces Jaleel Johnson, Parker Hesse and Nathan Bazata were key components on the defensive line a year ago, and Waukee product Anthony Nelson appears to be a burgeoning star at rush end.
I hesitate to say Iowa State doesn’t have a puncher’s chance, especially given the track record of this series. Underdogs and road teams have performed well in recent memory. A clean, competitive game would be an outstanding starting point for the Cyclones.
Make no mistake about it, though: a clean, competitive game would be a relatively surprising development, given the 16-point spread (biggest in the series since 2007 and third-highest this millennium). This Hawkeye ballclub, which is attempting to win their 14th consecutive regular-season contest for the first time in nearly 100 years, is a finished product for all intents and purposes.
On the other side, Campbell is just getting started. While ISU should and likely will get better with each passing week, expecting his squad to take the defending Big Ten West champions and their 15 returning starters the distance at Kinnick Stadium is an awfully tall order.
Watch the tug of war along the line of scrimmage for an early indicator. If Iowa is getting a significant surge with its basic run package and Hawkeye defenders are wreaking instant havoc in the Cyclone backfield, Campbell’s squad is likely in for a long night. Despite having just one lineman back on either side of the ball who started in this game a year ago, these unseasoned Cyclone big men must find a way to serve and protect when the pressure is on – whether they’re ready or not.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org