Iowa State Preview: WVU Faces An Improving Cyclone Squad
Iowa State seems to be hitting its stride just as West Virginia heads to Ames.
The Mountaineers are ranked No. 6 in the country and sport a 5-0 record. Meanwhile, the Cyclones are 2-3, but look little like the team that didn’t score a touchdown until mid-September.
After an exciting 8-5 season in 2017, which included wins over No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 TCU, Iowa State got off to a shaky start this year. A powerful thunderstorm in the Midwest the weekend of Sept. 1 cancelled several college games in the area, including Iowa State’s opener against South Dakota State. Thus without an opportunity to workout the kinks, the Cyclones’ first game of the season wound up being on the road at rival Iowa on Sept. 8. ISU’s veteran quarterback Kyle Kempt was injured against the Hawkeyes, and thus the ISU offense was completely out of whack. It managed just 188 yards of total offense and lost 13-3.
The ISU offense improved some against Oklahoma the next week (447 total yards), but it wasn’t enough against the high-powered Sooners, who prevailed 37-27 in a hard-fought contest.
A 26-13 win over Akron and a 17-14 loss at TCU left the Cyclones with a 1-3 record heading into No. 25 Oklahoma State last week. ISU went to Stillwater as a decided underdog, especially considering that Kempt was still out of the lineup and all-Big 12 running back David Montgomery joined him on the sideline because of an arm injury. Kempt’s replacement, Zeb Noland, again got the start at OSU, but was replaced in the second series by true freshman Brock Purdy, who had seen only a few snaps of action all year.
But Purdy proved to be just the spark the Cyclones needed. He led ISU in rushing with 84 yards and also passed for 318 more in guiding Iowa State to a surprising 48-42 victory over the previously 4-1 Cowboys.
All the sudden a Cyclone offense that averaged just 17.5 points through its first four games had found a triggerman in Purdy, who threw for four touchdowns and ran for another in Stillwater.
“I thought their quarterback kept plays alive, and that was the biggest thing,” said WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson when asked about the change in the Cyclones. “(Purdy) can obviously run the ball; he was their leading rusher. Then, they made some big throws down the field. You watch their first couple of games, and then you turn this one on, it looks like a totally different offense.”
“He didn’t go in and play like a freshman,” added West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen of Purdy, who is a native of Arizona. “I don’t think I’ve seen a game one freshman performance quite like that.
“He runs around a lot better than Kempt does,” continued WVU’s head coach. “They’re doing all kinds of quarterback run game with Purdy, which is a different challenge for us. With him in there, they look a lot like what we looked like two or three years ago with Skyler (Howard), as far as quarterback-run game, and different things that were coached up the appropriate way. We’ll have to figure that out when we get there. But we got a lot of good information to be able to coach up at this point.”
Kempt, who injured his knee at Iowa, is reportedly getting closer to being available for game action, but most around Ames believe that Purdy’s performance at Oklahoma State will earn him the start against WVU this Saturday.
Montgomery’s status is also still questionable. He rushed for 1,146 yards last season, but the arm this year has limited him to 334 yards through four games of action. He did not play in the win at Oklahoma State, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to go this coming Saturday.
“He’s a really elusive, powerful kid,” Gibson said of the 5-foot-11, 216-pound Montgomery. “Very rarely do you ever see him go backwards when he gets hit, and he makes a lot of guys miss. (ProFootballFocus) does a thing on backs after the season, and last year, yards after contact and making people miss, he was the No. 1 running back in the country at doing that. He’s a really good player.
“Two years ago, out there, we struggled tackling him,” added Gibson, recalling Montgomery’s 141-yard performance against WVU in 2016 in Ames. “Last year, here, we did a pretty good job with it (115 yards), but he’s really elusive.”
Iowa State receivers Deshaunte Jones, who has 25 catches for 196 yards with one touchdown, and Hakeem Butler, who has 18 receptions for 372 yards with four TDs, are both big play threats. Butler in particular, at 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, is a tough matchup.
Gibson has a special tactic planned for the big ISU receiver.
“We’re going to put (Josh) Norwood on Keith’s (Washington) shoulders and let them cover them that way,” Gibson joked, referring to his two cornerbacks. “We’ve had good practice at it. Texas Tech was big too, so what we have to do is create confusion for this quarterback and not give him any easy throws to that big target. That’s our key every week and to try to create some pressure and make quick throws so we can keep him in front of us. If you get into the jump-ball situation with them, we’re going to lose that.”
Defensively Iowa State returns seven starters from last year’s unit. So far its numbers have been pretty good, as it is third in the Big 12 in rushing defense (122.0 ypg) and fifth in pass defense (227.6 ypg).
“I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing defensively,” said Holgorsen, who is 5-1 all-time against ISU and has won the last four straight. “Coach (Jon) Heacock has done a great job (as the Cyclones’ defensive coordinator) and has taken a kind of odd stack like what we do here, and kind of put his own spin on it. It’s not exactly what we’re doing, but it’s got some of those principles to it.
“So, they’ll pose a lot of the same problems Kansas did last week in that they’re a quality defense.”
The Jayhawks stepped in to intercept three Will Grier passes near the goal line last week. WVU still won 38-22, but those turnovers kept the game much closer than it otherwise would have been.
“I think a lot of teams are starting to do that,” said West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital when asked about the umbrella coverage Kansas employed. “They did do a couple things that are different; they came out with what they had not shown in terms of how they ran their stacked front with the Mike (linebacker) that was about seven yards behind (the defensive line). It was kind of like three levels, a diamond, 3-2-1 in the box, which Iowa State runs that.
“The way I talked to the offense, teams are going to keep things multiple against us,” added Spavital. “They’re going try to change it up, and they’re going to try to keep you on your toes and off-balanced. We have to be able to react and identify what we’re trying to do and make sure that we go attack it.”
Kickoff from Jake Trice Stadium in Ames is 7 p.m. Eastern. The game will be televised by FS1.