The Chalkboard: West Virginia Mountaineers – Iowa State Cyclones
What we thought we knew, we didn’t know.
We had a pretty good picture assembled of Iowa State. The Cyclones are a reflection of their still-young coach Matt Campbell – aggressive and hard-nosed. Also, offensively challenged.
ISU had scored just 70 points in its first four games, and looked to be a carbon-copy of previous Campbell squads. The Cyclones played good defense, competed like crazy, but couldn’t mount enough offense to get over the hump in some games. Their best offensive output, 27 points against Oklahoma, was revealed to be as much a product of the Sooners’ shoddy defense than of any real improvement.
Then, along came freshman Brock Purdy, who stepped in at quarterback in relief of Zeb Noland and shredded Oklahoma State on the way to a 48-42 win.
Thus, West Virginia’s visit to Ames this Saturday has an entirely different feel. It’s no longer a matter of getting to 24 or 27 points and thinking a win is in place. Also, if Purdy’s ascendance isn’t enough to worry about, the Cyclones might get running back David Montgomery, who missed the OSU game, back.
That leaves WVU with another challenge defensively in addition to having to prepare for multiple QBs. Who is Iowa State, and what will it lean on if all of those players are available? West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen thinks the Cyclones are still looking for their identity, which may well be true, but at this point that makes them unpredictable. And as Sam Elliott said in Ghostrider “That makes you dangerous.”
To counter that, watch for some base defensive sets on West Virginia’s first couple of series as they see how Iowa State plans to attack. Certainly, there will be a blitzer or two, especially if down and distance dictate, but the more exotic stuff will wait until the Mountaineer defensive staff gets a bead on what Campbell’s offense is doing.
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Ever since our first trip to Ames, we have noted the similarities between the Iowa State football environment and that of West Virginia. From the nearly carbon-copy of the original stadium structure (both were designed by the same architectural firm) and the passion of the fans, the reminders hit quickly. Only the lack of surrounding mountains provides a difference.
That’s important to note here because night games at Iowa State, like those at West Virginia, are amped-up events. If the Cyclones are in the game, Jack Trice Stadium is very difficult to play in, especially with the recent addition of an enclosed end zone that helps encapsulate the sound. (Did you know that ISU now has the third-largest stadium in the Big 12, behind Texas and Oklahoma?) ISU will also try to heighten the hype with an all-black uniform that looks to be on the slate for the 6:00 p.m. Central Time start.
The uniforms don’t matter, but the noise does. ISU has the most consistent and loud fans when both football and basketball are considered, and with a new freshman phenom at QB and renewed hope for another bowl trip, it’s going to be loud. Another WVU fast start would be the perfect antidote for that, but this won’t be easy.
Will Grier has become an anomaly. Not for his family status, or his statistics. But rather for the fact that he’s the only quarterback that West Virginia has, or will, play in 2018 – barring an injury or mop-up duty.
Iowa State is just the latest in a string of Big 12 teams, that for one reason or another, has seen multiple QBs get significant playing time. In addition to the Cyclones, Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Baylor are juggling players behind center. TCU saw its backup get time in its loss to Texas, and has been having some offensive issues.
What is different about ISU is that all of its quarterbacks — Kyle Kempt, Zeb Noland and Brock Purdy – have had success. Purdy’s one-game stats against Oklahoma State 18-23, 318 yards, 4 TDs / 20 rushes for 83 yards) should earn him the start this week, but Kempt was 15-21 in his action in game one before being injured, and Noland is 70-110 for four scores.
WVU would prefer to see Kempt or Noland on the field, because neither has the elusiveness or rushing capability of Purdy. It would be a shock to see anyone else other than the latter take the first snap, no matter how coy Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell is playing it.
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“Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”
That saying, often attributed to Mark Twain but most likely first made by Charles Dudley Warner, the editor of the Hartford Courant, still rings true, but this week it hasn’t been a topic of discussion. Until now.
While there’s only a slight chance of precipitation this Saturday evening in Ames, it’s going to be the coldest game for WVU so far by a wide margin. Game time temp will be below 50 degrees, and fall steadily as the sun goes down.
WVU won’t get a chance to acclimate to that, and while it shouldn’t be a huge issue, there is a difference, especially in handling the ball, when it gets colder.
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Should you care how many touchdown passes Will Grier has? No.
That is, if your first concern is West Virginia winning games. Of course, every Mountaineer fan would love to see Grier pile up numbers and make a Heisman run. But in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how West Virginia score. It just matters that it does so.
Touchdown passes are an easy thing to count, but they don’t really tell you a lot, other than a team is either really good at getting receivers free down field for long-range strikes, or chooses to throw it when it’s close to the goal line. West Virginia, this year is both.
The latter is the item to track here, as it illuminates the problem of WVU’s red zone rushing attack. After it suffered losses of 13 yards on fourrushing plays inside the zone (another carry was a no-gainer), the Mountaineers reverted to throwing the ball last week, with mixed results.
Can that change? It was WVU’s primary point of emphasis in running game work this week, and to some degree it also depends on how Iowa State defends in the shadow of its own goal line. As WVU offensive Jake Spavital notes, though, there comes a time when a few yards have to be gained, even against a loaded box.
Keep track of WVU’s red zone plays this week and the play selections, or decisions made on RPOs, when the Mountaineers are inside the 20, with special attention to snaps inside the ten. Defenses are likely to continue to drop multiple defenders into shallow zones across the field, and if West Virginia can’t run against such an alignment, its touchdown rate from close proximity will continue to suffer.
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Travel Note of the Week: In many cases, perception trumps reality, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to consideration of the trip to Ames for Iowa State games. It might seem that it would be difficult to get there, but it’s actually one of the easier trips, and much less of a pain than flying in to Dallas, for example.
The Des Moines airport, some 40 miles from campus, is easy to get in and out of, and the quick trip north to Iowa State is a breeze. Given traffic and construction, it’s not that much longer than trips from airports in Austin or Dallas, and there aren’t any annoying tolls, either.
The Des Moines food scene is also underrated, with Zombie Burger holding a special place on my list. Cereal in a milkshake? You bet.
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Yet another Iowa State quarterback has ties to the sports entertainment industry. Freshman Re-al Mitchell’s mother, Sha-ri Pendleton, was “Blaze” on the television show American Gladiators, and has a great back story. Born in Iceland, she was also a world class hurdler and javelin thrower who competed at Nebraska before moving on to the world of entertainment sports.