There is always a bit of a fight among the Frogs O’ War staff when it comes to Iowa State week, as we all want the opportunity to chat with the folks over at our excellent Cyclones’ sister site, the always entertaining Wide Right & Natty Lite. I won the battle this week, likely due to earning some good vibes after spending a week in the wilderness with 70+ high school freshmen.
The tone was a little more football serious than normal for this particular Q&A, though, as the Cyclones are RANKED, putting a lot more pressure on both teams to perform at a high level Saturday. Levi Stevenson was kind enough to answer
a few a lot many questions for me ahead of the first Top 25 showdown between TCU and ISU. He’s really high on QB Kyle Kempt (or maybe really high judging by his comps, haha), the Cyclone Defense, and the Matt Campbell era in Ames.
Melissa Triebwasser: So, here we are, just like we all expected, two teams picked to finish fifth and ninth in the conference in the preseason poll, matching up as a combined 12-2 and as the #4 and #25 team in the country. How surprising is this for Iowa State fans?
Levi Stevenson: All Cyclone fans are surprised to a certain degree, depending on what type of fan they are. If they're an older Cyclone fan that dealt with all of the REALLY bad teams from the 80s and 90s, then they're probably more surprised than anyone. Most of that crowd is also probably the first to pump the brakes on the hype train, citing past failures as an omen for future disappointment. However, the largest proportion of Cyclone fans is surprised, but only mildly so in comparison to the older Cyclone fans. This group has been listening to Matt Campbell, paying attention to recruiting classes, noting game-by-game growth, and appreciating just how good of a coach Matt Campbell is. To those people (most of who probably predicted a bowl game at the beginning of the season) are surprised by how quickly success has come, but not that success happened. This program returning to bowl contention and becoming a real player in the Big 12 was more of when, not if, question with Matt Campbell at the helm.
MT: I think we all expected the Cyclones to be better, but the turnaround seemed to happen overnight. For Matt Campbell's crew to lose that weird game at home to Texas, then lose their QB, and suddenly rattle off three straight, including wins in Norman and Lubbock, is certainly shocking. What sparked the change?
LS: The first big change the happened, starting with the Texas game, was the defense. The defense, especially the line, was a massive question mark coming into the season. Not only has this defense been much better than advertised, but it's been downright dominant. Defensive coordinator John Heacock has done a masterful job utilizing his young talent on the defensive line to apply serious pressure on the quarterback with only a three man rush, allowing us to drop eight into coverage and force quarterbacks to make difficult throws into tight windows, but never for large chunks of yardage. The 3-2-6 "bend, but don't break" defensive scheme held the top 10 offense of Texas Tech to just 13 points, and almost 200 yards below their average. Joel Lanning, Marcel Spears, and Willie Harvey have done a very good job at stopping the run from the linebacker position with help from Ray Lima, Jamahl Johnson, J.D. Waggoner, and JaQuan Bailey (among others) on the defensive line. Since changing from the 4-3 defense to a 3-2-6 after the Akron game, Iowa State has done an outstanding job at shutting down the vertical passing game and forcing teams to heavily rely on underneath passes. Open-field tackling has become a legitimate strength of this defense, so those underneath passes rarely, if ever, go for long gains.
MT: Joel Lanning has made a name for himself on the national stage this season, after being well-known in the Big 12 for the last several seasons. What can you tell TCU fans who might not know his story, about him as a person and player, and what he means to the ISU community?
LS: First, Joel is from Ankeny, Iowa, just 20 miles south of Ames. He grew up a Cyclone fan and committed to Iowa State during the Paul Rhoads era as a dual threat quarterback with a big time arm. After redshirting and playing minimally during his first two seasons, Joel took over as the starting quarterback for the second half of the 2015 season and played pretty well. Following the arrival of Matt Campbell and Jacob Park that winter, Joel was still considered a lock to start from day one. Eventually Jacob Park took over the starting job full time approximately halfway into the season, not because Joel was playing poorly, but because Park was playing so well. Through the rest of the season, Joel was still heavily involved in the offense in the running game, turning into a reincarnation of Tim Tebow, highlighted by his 5 TD performance against Texas Tech. By the end of the season, Matt Campbell knew that Joel was too smart and talented to only have on the field for 10-15 plays per game. The Cyclones had a whole to fill at linebacker, so Campbell offered him the job. Joel accepted the position change with every bit of enthusiasm you would expect from a senior leader, and immediately began learning the hardest position on defense from scratch.
By the time the spring game rolled around, Joel had only had a few weeks of practice at middle linebacker. However, he flashed his potential by intercepting a Jacob Park pass and returning it for a touchdown. Fast forward to this week, and Joel has progressed from an interesting project to one of the better linebackers in the conference, the most versatile player in the country, and possibly a potential NFL draft pick. Against Oklahoma, Joel played in all three phases of the game (one of which he ended up throwing a good lead block on after David Montgomery reversed direction on a screen pass), throwing passes, running the ball out of the wildcat, playing the defense, blitzing the quarterback, and even taking part in punt coverage. Not only did he play all three phases, but he played all of them well. Joel is the do-everything workhorse that every coach and fan dreams about.
MT: Kyle Kempt was a relative unknown coming into the season, but has been very good since taking over for Park. What are his strengths and weakness as the conductor of this suddenly dangerous Iowa State offense?
LS: The best comparison for Kyle Kempt is Alex Smith or near-the-end Peyton Manning. He's smart and poised, and is the unquestioned leader of the offense as a game manager. Like Smith and late-career Manning, the arm strength isn't worth writing home about, but the ball is always on-time and on target. From a guy that had never started a collegiate game before the Oklahoma upset, that's more than a little impressive. As mentioned before, his poise is extremely impressive. On the third pass of the game against Texas Tech, Kempt threw an interception which ended being essentially a pick 6. What did Kempt do the next drive? Go 7 of 8 passing and cap the drive with a beautiful touchdown throw to Allen Lazard. The guy is unshakeable, and that's exactly what this team needs at quarterback.
MT: The ISU defense has been the real star of the show over this three game stretch though, as they are holding opponents to 20 ppg, less than 3.5 yards per rush, and just about 6.5 yards per pass. How do you think they matchup with TCU, and do you expect them to keep the Frogs' offense in check?
LS: As mentioned before, this defense does an excellent job of preventing deep plays and challenging the quarterback and receiver to make an absolutely perfect throw and catch on anything longer than 10 yards. Even then, possible 1st Team All-Big 12 cornerback Brian Peavy has done an excellent job of breaking up even well thrown balls. The other thing this defense does extremely well is cover misdirection and gimmick plays. Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech all tried a handful of reverses, counter runs, and even a flea flicker from Oklahoma. On the vast majority of those plays the defense was extremely disciplined and stopped the play for minimal gain or less, even blowing up a few Tech and Oklahoma reverses well behind the line of scrimmage. Given how much TCU likes to use misdirection and the vertical passing game, I'm actually really intrigued and even somewhat optimistic about that matchup. TCU's offense plays directly into the strength of the Cyclone defense, so Kenny Hill would be wise to take advantage of the underneath routes that the defense will give him throughout the game, rather then get impatient and try for the home run ball every few plays. Since the switch to the 3-2-6 defense, only Baker Mayfield has had anything resembling success, and that was due to his patience and willingness to be patient in the passing game, along with his elite accuracy. TCU's success will come down to how patient Kenny Hill can be.
MT: Earlier this week, I saw someone remark that this game would be the Cyclones' Super Bowl, and the response from an ISU fan was "every week is our Super Bowl". But, now, the Cyclones aren't necessarily the plucky underdog, and have expectations on them that haven't been seen in Ames in years. Do you think the players and fans will be at all affected by their sudden rise, or will they maintain an attitude of 'nobody believes in us'?
LS: Because of our past, Cyclone fans will probably always have the underdog chip on our shoulder, but make no mistake, this fanbase is more than ready to win. The Iowa State fanbase has always been extremely loyal, but has never been "okay" with losing. This isn't a fanbase like Baylor or Kansas that is largely indifferent towards the team, but it'll never become like Nebraska or Iowa, two fanbases so self-entitled they make Lavar Ball look like a Buddhist monk.
MT: Who do you think wins Saturday, and how do they do it?
LS: If TCU wins, I think it'll be because their defense was able to contain David Montgomery and force the offense to rely on Kyle Kempt's vertical passing ability. In this situation, TCU probably wins by a couple touchdowns.
If Iowa State wins, it'll be because the offense was able to control the tempo of the game and keep the TCU offense off the field, exactly like they did against Oklahoma. In this scenario, it's probably a close game most of the way, with the Cyclones pulling it out by a touchdown or less.
Because Iowa State is riding some momentum into this game that hasn't been seen since the 2002 season in which ISU was ranked #9 after a 6-0 start, I'm going to have to go with the homer pick and say 31-24 Cyclones. Both defenses are too good to let this game creep into the 40s, but it's an afternoon game that's inching towards a sellout, and this is our Homecoming game, so I like the Cyclones to draw some energy from what will surely be an electric atmosphere. I was one of the people that had Iowa State in a bowl game at the beginning of the season, but if you told me that taking the homer pick in this game was going to be a very reasonable prediction, I would have laughed in your face.
MT: What are your hopes and dreams for the remainder of the football season and into bowl season?
LS: If Iowa State can take down TCU this Saturday, the Cyclones will absolutely have their eye on making it into the Big 12 Championship game. Following TCU is a very winnable game at West Virginia against a terrible defense and a vertical offense (see: strength of Iowa State defense, above), a massive showdown against Oklahoma State, a should/must-win game against Baylor, and another very winnable game against a struggling Kansas State team to cap the season.
If Iowa State falls this Saturday, I think you're looking at shooting for 7 or 8 wins. Just beating Baylor and one of Kansas State or West Virginia gets you to 7, taking out the other gets you 8, and Matt Campbell is probably a lock for Big 12 coach of the year and a contender for National Coach of the Year with Charlie Strong and Scott Frost.
Right now the second scenario is far more likely, but that first scenario is not unrealistic and is oh, so enticing to contemplate.
MT: Herbie lit a fire under some fans earlier this week by saying that Matt Campbell was on his way out of Ames. What are your expectations for how is time at Iowa State ends, and when will that be?
LS: This was literally never anything close to a story or an issue before Herbstreit arrogantly and foolishly tweeted that Matt Campbell was a virtual certainty to leave the program for one of the many high profile jobs that could be open at the end of this season. I realize it's Kirk's job to entertain or start conversation, but he clearly hasn't listened to a single word Matt Campbell has said during his time at Iowa State, nor does he have any insider information that nobody else does.
Since the very beginning, Campbell has repeated that he wanted to come to Iowa State to lay a foundation and build something special in Ames. I'm not saying he's gonna Bill Snyder this thing, especially given that he's only 37 and is just an infant in the coaching world, but every indication he's given us is that he's not here to use this as a stepping stone like Pete Carrol, Jimmie Johnson, Tom Herman, Gene Cheese-dick, and many others have done before. When asked about Herbstreit's comments during a radio interview this past Sunday, Campbell called talk of him leaving "disrespectful." When Campbell came here, he essentially brought in an entire new staff of friends and old colleagues to make up what has to be one of the youngest coaching staffs in country. When Matt was hired, his coaching staff was on campus developing recruiting strategies and a game plan for the 2016 season within 48 HOURS. Seriously, those guys stayed up for what seemed like the entire month of December recruiting program-changing guys like David Montgomery, Deshaunte Jones, and Hakeem Butler.
Does that sound like a coach and coaching staff that wanted to come here and leave after a couple years? Yeah, I didn't think so either.
MT: If you could sit around and drink with any coaching staff in the conference, who would it be and why?
LS: This is going to sound pretty generic, but it really would be this Iowa State coaching staff. They're all young and extremely relatable, but most importantly, they're all good friends on and off the football field. This staff has a type of bond that I've literally never seen before in major sports, collegiate or professional. That and we can all sit down and talk shit about Iowa. Yeah, that seems fun.
Thanks again to Levi for taking the time. Be sure to give him a follow on twitter @LeviRStevenson and watch for my responses over at www.widerightnattylite.com in the coming days.