Mountaineers 2020: Previewing Iowa State
After two straight bye weeks (one scheduled, and one forced due to the Sooners’ COVID outbreak), the West Virginia Mountaineers travel to Ames to face the the ninth-ranked Cyclones this Saturday. ESPN will televise the game, which kicks off at 3:30. Continuing our in-season coverage of the Mountaineers, we are previewing Iowa State here.
Previewing Iowa State
Under Head Coach Matt Campbell, the Cyclones have ditched their perennial cellar-dweller days. Before the 2017 season, Iowa State put up 10 losing seasons out of 11. But in Campbell’s second year, Iowa State won 8 games, their most since 2000, after winning only three in his first season. Safe to say, then, that Campbell installed a winning culture immediately. Now, in this COVID-shortened season, Iowa State has clinched its best winning percentage since that 2000 season. They have won four straight, including a 45-0 shutout of Kansas State and a 23-20 win over Texas last weekend. Their only losses come from a season-opening tilt with Louisiana and a close 24-21 loss to Oklahoma State.
Previewing Iowa State’s Offense
Offensively, the Cyclones offer balanced output, averaging just under 200 yards a game running the ball and just under 240 yards a game passing. Quarterback Brock Purdy again leads a veteran offense. Behind solid protection (as Iowa State gives up just over one sack per game), Purdy leads an efficient unit. Purdy completes 65% of his throws. He has tossed 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. He adds 272 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Purdy has proven more than capable as a dual-threat gamer that will present challenges for West Virginia’s defense.
Sophomore Breece Hall’s improvement this season adds another element to the offense. He allows Campbell to lean more heavily on the run. In fact, Hall has over 1,250 yards on the ground and averages nearly six-and-a-half yards per carry. More impressive, Hall racked up 14 rushing touchdowns through nine games. Coupled with Purdy’s dual-threat playmaking ability, the Cyclones’ backfield offers a significant challenge.
On the receiving side, Xavier Hutchinson and Charlie Kolar lead the Cyclones with four receiving touchdowns each. Hutchinson also leads the team in receptions (42) and yards (523). Tight end Chase Allen adds another weapon for Purdy. He has 13 receptions for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
In many ways, the Cyclones offer a close mirror of the Mountaineers’ offense. Where they can, they prefer to establish the run and lean on it heavily. They protect the ball well, surrendering only 11 turnovers through nine games (West Virginia has turned it over nine times through eight).
Previewing Iowa State’s Defense
As usual, Campbell’s Cyclones complement a disciplined and careful offense with a fundamentally-sound defense. They surrender around 350 yards and 23 points per game. Iowa State is more stingy against the run, giving up three yards a carry. They are more susceptible against the pass, however, giving up about 240 yards a game.
Iowa State does force plenty of negative. Indeed, they have collected just shy of three sacks a game. JaQuan Bailey and Will McDonald lead the Cyclones with six and six-and-a-half sacks, respectively. Bailey also leads the Cyclones with 12 tackles for loss. Mike Rose adds 10 tackles for loss. He leads the team in tackles with 76 and interceptions with four.
The Cyclones also commit very few penalties, averaging just five flags drawn per game. Indeed, they play sound defense, thriving as a unit, swarming the ball, and keeping opposing offenses in front of them. They do not thrive on takeaways (averaging right around one per game). Instead, they limit big plays and keep opponents off the field as well as anyone.
Yards to Gain: How the Mountaineers Can Prevail
West Virginia should be well-rested coming into Ames. There will surely be no shortage of adrenaline, as they battle a top-ten team. Head Coach Neal Brown looks for a signature win in his second season, and this game offers a good chance to do it. Simply, the Mountaineers matchup well against the Cyclones. Here’s why.
Balancing Speed and Power on Offense
The soundness of the Cyclones’ defense comes as much from their communication in swarming the ball as it does talent. They are younger than they were a year ago, however, so there is still some youth to exploit. As a result, the Mountaineers can take advantage of that polish by balancing power and speed.
Leddie Brown has played solid football this season, averaging five-and-a-half yards per carry. He has most of his yards (well over half) after contact, though, punishing defenders who step in his way. Against a team that swarms, that power and break-tackle ability should take a toll on the defense early. But balancing that power with misdirection and play action should allow the Mountaineers to find space and exploit it.
Look for a few deep early balls to Sam James and Sean Ryan to keep the unit spread north to south. Also look for Alec Sinkfield and Winston Wright to get into space. The jet sweeps, bubble screens, and delayed draws that Brown has employed through the season will allow the Mountaineers to use that space if they can create it.
Iowa State does not force turnovers regularly. As a result, if West Virginia simply takes what they are given, fans should see a clean game in that department, especially with Jarret Doege throwing as efficiently as he has the past few games. If the Mountaineers can keep possession, they have a solid chance at winning the turnover battle. Considering that five of the Cyclones’ nine games have been within a single score, that battle could easily decide the game.
When driving, West Virginia needs to build on its success in their win over TCU. In particular, the receiving corps played their best game as a unit all season, catching all catchable balls and missing on only one contested pass. The team, however, still drew 10 flags and lost 85 yards to those penalties. That amount doubles Iowa State’s season average, and they will need to clean this up some to avoid giving up momentum to the Cyclones.
Continue the Defensive Dominance
Despite their weaponry, Iowa State has not produced points consistently. Indeed, they have been held to 23 or fewer points in a third of their games. And, simply, they have not yet faced a defense as dominant as the Mountaineers. West Virginia gives up only 274 yards and under 18 points a game. They pressure and contain opposing offensive units as well as anyone. As a result, they limit big plays and also average right around three sacks a game defensively.
Honestly, their sack total does not accurately reflect the impact of their pressure. Given the solid coverage offered by Dreshun Miller, Nicktroy Fortune, and Tykee Smith in particular, the defensive line has felt safe bringing pressure. On more than half of all plays, we find a Mountaineer defender behind the line of scrimmage. Dante and Darius Stills have just missed on a dozen more sacks than they have now (five-and-a-half combined). That results in plenty of tackles for loss, too, as West Virginia averages over seven per game.
The linebackers will also need to communicate well to ensure there is a spy on Purdy all game. Tony Fields has proven more than capable of run stuffing, as he always finds himself around the ball. As a result, he is on pace for 100 tackles in a 10-game season. If he and the rest of the unit maintain their gaps well, they can effectively contain Purdy and Hall.
If the Mountaineers can execute accordingly, they can leave Ames with their first road win of the season. But that is a bigger ask than we make it sound, and, simply, they’ll need to be close to perfect to earn it.