Wide Right & Natty Lite is probably your (second) favorite SB Nation blog, and for good reason - the fine folks reporting from Ames are a fun, informed bunch who never take themselves too seriously.
It’s been a lot more fun, and a little more serious, over the last year or so though, as the Cyclones have risen from also-ran and team you don’t want to play late in the year to team you don’t want to play, period. Matt Campbell is building a powerhouse among the cornfields of Iowa, and they’re just getting better.
Both the Cyclones and the Horned Frogs are off to 0-1 starts in conference play this year, making Saturday night’s matchup a big one for both teams. We talked with Levi Stevenson to get the skinny on a QB named Zeb, a fleet of oversized wide receivers, and a defense that you should probably know more about.
Frogs O’ War: Neither Iowa State or TCU’s seasons have gotten off to the start either fanbase expected - some in their control, some out. How much did having the opener cancelled affect the Cyclones, and what have you seen in their progression, since.
Levi Stevenson: Not having an opening game had an enormous affect on the team, probably even more than we had realized at the time. In those first games, teams are able to review and generate film against an actual opponent rather than their own defense in practice. Substitutions and personnel can get ironed out, and playcallers can begin getting in their rhythm. Instead of having all of those great opportunities to work out some of the bugs, Iowa State had to go to Kinnick Stadium for the first game of the season against one of the best defensive lines in the country (possibly the best defensive line in the country not playing for Dabo Swinney, depending on who you ask). We knew the offensive line needed a couple games to get in their groove, but they instead had just about the worst day you could imagine against that line. The offensive line that game was also different from the depth chart we saw that week, excluding redshirt freshman Colin Newell at center. My guess is that they didn’t want him to make his first start in that environment against that defensive line. His replacement, Sean Foster, started at LT, which moved Julian Good-Jones back to center, and got absolutely eaten alive by AJ Epenesa. Campbell said after the game that he regrets switching to the original offensive line, so that’s obviously something that would have beem fixed or completely eliminated had we gotten to play the first game.
Matt Campbell was also returning to offensive play-calling duties, something he hadn’t done since his days at Bowling Green. Nobody doubted that he could do it, but it would understandably take a couple games for the play-calling to find a rhythm. Stacking those two huge issues together, and you an offensive line that wasn’t ready to face a defensive line that good, getting destroyed so badly that it was affecting Campbell’s ability to follow the game plan they had likely devised leading up to the game. Thus, the offensive looked terrible against Iowa.
During the Oklahoma game, it was obvious to see all of the improvement after the first game. The play-calling was really good, and the offensive line gave Zeb Noland time to throw on virtually every snap.
Missing the very first game of the season is especially painful for a team like Iowa State that typically relies on player development throughout the season, and doesn’t typically have the talent laying around to just win on talent alone against a solid Power-5 team.
FOW: Zeb Noland took over for an injured Kyle Kempt in week one, and the offense has looked markedly better since. What does the young quarterback bring to the table and how do you expect him to perform against a TCU defense that has looked stout (at times) through the first four weeks of the season.
LS: I’m going to use a couple NFL play-style comparisons to give you a good idea for what this situation looks like. Kyle Kempt is basically 38 year-old Peyton Manning. The arm isn’t great, but it’s pretty accurate. However, by far his greatest trait is his ability to manage the game and avoid turnovers. He’s the ultimate safety blanket at quarterback. Zeb Noland is young Matthew Stafford. He’s got a big time arm, and is accurate to all areas of the field. He’s still young and will make a few mistakes as he learns, but the offense’s ceiling is much higher when he’s on the field. One thing we’ve seen early is that he can throw a back shoulder fade better than a lot of quarterbacks in the conference. If one of those fades is headed in the direction of Hakeem Butler, the cornerback has basically no chance.
FOW: David Montgomery is one of the best backs in the conference, but hasn’t had the big breakout game - yet. What’s the issue/difference with Montgomery and what needs to happen for him to take over?
LS: As stated above, against Iowa the offensive line was absolutely terrible. He only had 44 yards, but they had to be the most impressive 44 yards I’ve ever seen. He showcased all of the vision and elusiveness we saw last year. We saw his production ramp up to 82 yards against Oklahoma, but his production was somewhat limited by a heavier running back rotation and a heavier emphasis on passing later in the game with us needing to make a comeback. Finally, David broke 100 yards against Akron, with most of that coming in the first half. Unfortunately, he was a little banged up heading into halftime with a shoulder issue. He did still get a few carries in the second half, and will be back for this week, but with a regular workload in the second half, it’s fairly likely that he could have had a final yardage over 150.
Fortunately, the Cyclones do have 3-4 backs behind him capable of shouldering a decent offensive load, so he doesn’t have to be the ultra-workhorse he was last season. Johnnie Lang was the primary beneficiary of the newly available carries this week, and played well. Sheldon Croney has done a nice job in spot duty, and actually carried the entire load against Kansas State last season. Speedster Kene Nwangwu has been getting more carries each week, and the coaches will likely get him involved more and more to utilize his speed. If somehow those four guys can’t get it done, we do still have Mike Warren stashed somewhere.
FOW: Where do you find all these giant freak wide receivers? We all know Hakeem Butler is really good, but what other cyborgs do we need to know about?
LS: 6’4” Matt Eaton is the other main “giant freak” Frog fans will see on the field on Saturday. He’s an excellent target in the medium passing game and in the red zone, as he’s a crisp route-runner with a talent for making difficult catches.
Aside from those two, there are four other receivers on the roster listed at 6’3” or taller. True freshman Sean Shaw is closer to 6’7” than 6’6” and has excellent hands. He needs to put on some muscle before he sees regular playing time, so it’s not likely we’ll see him on Saturday, but I guess you never know. Included in the 2019 recruiting class are three receivers listed at 6’4” or taller, and one is a sprinter in high school (Darien Porter - 21.77 200m dash). None of this is really relevant to this year’s preview, but it is a good illustration of the direction the staff is going in recruiting lots of tall receivers, and guys with track backgrounds.
FOW: This Iowa State defense is really good, but doesn’t have a lot of “big name” guys. What makes it work so well and when teams have been successful, where are they finding cracks?
LS: Without a doubt the 3-man front that has completely changed the Cyclone defense revolves around nose tackle Ray Lima. He continues to be one of the most underappreciated players in the entire conference, and routinely eats up two offensive lineman in both passing and running situations. His ability to eat up space and blockers allows JaQuan Bailey and Enyi Uwazurike to use their speed to shoot gaps and blow up runs in the backfield, as well as apply decent pressure to the quarterback while only rushing those three people. Then, Marcel Spears Jr., Willie Harvey, and freshman standout Mike “Kissed by a” Rose create additional pressure off the edge or up the middle, or drop back into shallow coverage. Against Kyler Murray, Rose often sat in a spy. He actually was consistently in the right place to make a play, and would have been more successful against pretty much anyone not named Kyler Murray, but that dude’s going to embarrass a lot of people this season.
Behind the linebackers sits the best cornerback tandem in the conference in Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne, and two young safeties in Greg Eisworth and Lawrence White. Rightfully so, those two safeties had a lot of questions coming into the season. However, aside from one awful missed tackle against Oklahoma, Eisworth has exceed fans’ lofty expectations and has been running around like a man on fire. He flies to the ball, and hits people like they stole his lunch money. Expect to see #12 around the ball almost constantly. White played quite a bit last season, and seems to be developing nicely. He’s not quite as active as Eisworth, but is solid in pass coverage.
Finally, roaming around the field will be what the staff calls the “Star” position, which is essentially a nickleback that acts like a hybrid linebacker/safety. That spot is typically filled by Demonte Ruth and Braxton Lewis. Both tend to be better in run support than pass coverage, but Lewis did record an interception last week.
Essentially, the defense relies on disguising pressure from the linebackers, and sitting back in a zone that forces quarterbacks to be patient and throw tons of short and medium passes. Last year, Kenny Hill fell into the trap, as he got caught later in the game trying to force some tight windows farther downfield, which led to the game-sealing interception.
Generally speaking, the best success teams have had against this defense by either nickel and diming down the field with five and ten yard completions and getting runs after the catch, or sending somebody deep that has a ton of speed. Oklahoma used Marquise Brown to great effect early in the game, as he flat out burnt the safety on a deep post for a long touchdown. Turpin has the speed to do something similar over the top, so it will be up to Shawn Robinson to make that deep throw.
FOW: Iowa State wins if…
LS: They can slow down the run game and force Shawn Robinson to make lots of difficult throws into tight windows. Robinson has shown some proneness to turnovers in the last few games, and Iowa State has the scheme and personnel to take advantage of those mistakes. On offense, they’ll win if the game plan is similar to the one used against Oklahoma, that featured lots of zone running concepts and a more aggressive passing game that took advantage of holes in the zone 10-20 yards downfield. They’d be smart to find #18 as often as possible.
FOW: Iowa State loses if…
LS: The running game can’t gain any traction, and the offense is forced into lots of third and longs. Zeb Noland is plenty accurate and patient enough to be successful with a big work load, but I don’t see it as being a recipe for success for the Cyclones.
If the defense starts allowing explosive plays to guys like Kevontae Turpin and Darius Anderson, Saturday won’t be a ton of fun. Dual threat quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Akron’s Kato Nelson both had some success in creating yardage on the scramble. Along with his elusiveness, Murray is still and extremely accurate passer, so defenses can’t really dedicate much effort to slow down his running. Nelson, however, can be turnover-prone, Iowa State took advantage of that. Robinson likely falls somewhere between those two, but his legs will still need to be respected. I will definitely be keeping an eye on how DC Jon Heacock plans to limit Robinson’s effect as a runner.
FOW: What Texas thing are you most looking forward to?
LS: I won’t be in town for a super long time as I’m flying out early Saturday morning. If there’s time after the game, I will most certainly be making my way over to Babb Brothers BBQ and Blues in Dallas, which is owned and operated by the father of former and current Iowa State basketball stars Chris Babb and Nick Weiler-Babb. I’ve heard nothing but excellent reviews about the place, so I’m excited to try it. Otherwise, I’ll be looking forward to grabbing some Whataburger.
FOW: Prediction time!
LS: Though maybe not to the extreme of last year, I see this as being another tough defensive battle. Both sides have question marks on offense, but boast rock solid defenses. That said, I actually Iowa State matches up pretty well with TCU. The teams over the last year since switching to the three-down defense that have had much success have all had elite quarterbacks like Mason Rudolph or Will Grier (even Grier was still only really successful for one half). I think Shawn Robinson has a ton of potential, but at this stage in his career, I’m not sure if he’s a polished enough passer to really punish the Cyclone defense.
In the end, I think David Montgomery ends up being the difference. His elusiveness is an absolute game-changer. I mean, look at this nonsense:
I wasn't able to watch the game on Saturday and absolutely nobody prepared me for this highlight from David Montgomery.— Alex Gookin (@_AlexGookin) September 24, 2018
There's not another running back in the nation who can literally get tackled 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage and turn it into a 5-yard first down. pic.twitter.com/bS75rYSNPs
Give me the ‘Clones by a score of 21-17.