(Photo Courtesy of wvusports.com)
Two weekends off for the Mountaineers has them well rested and ready to tame #9 Iowa State for the first time since 2017. Let’s hope the rest vs. rust debate lands on the rest side. Iowa State enters the matchup atop the Big 12 standings. A win guarantees their spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. In his fifth season, Matt Campbell has the most complete team in the conference and is ready to prove it with a title.
Iowa State possesses a 7-1 record in conference, 7-2 overall with losses against Louisiana Lafayette and Oklahoma State. The first week loss to Louisiana Lafayette was aided by two Iowa State turnovers and two ULL special teams touchdowns. The Cyclones ripped off three straight wins including an upset of Oklahoma in Norman before dropping their second game at Oklahoma State. This was a highly contested game, a battle all day long that Iowa State happened to fall short in. Campbell and company then took on three inferior opponents before traveling to Austin last week and knocking off Texas by a field goal. Winners of four straight, Iowa State looks to extend that to five Saturday in Ames.
Austin Kendall was knocked out of the game on the first drive of last season’s contest. Backup signal caller Jack Allison did enough in the first half to keep the game tied at 14 entering the locker room. Iowa State shut the WVU offense out in the second half, allowing only 41 yards after halftime to win by a score of 38-14. A stagnant Mountaineer offense turned the ball over three times, with two fumbles, and only mustered 41 yards on the ground. This year, the improved WVU rushing attack will prove vital to grab their first road win of the season in their last chance.
Iowa State Offense
On paper, this is about as even of a matchup as you can get. WVU is almost a spitting image of Iowa State statistically. The Cyclones are led by Junior quarterback Brock Purdy. Purdy burst on the scene his freshman year, leading upsets at #25 Oklahoma State and against then #6 West Virginia. He hasn’t looked back since. Purdy is well protected and can make plays with his arm and his legs. The explosive plays are down a bit each year since he’s taken over. Iowa State now uses a plethora of tight ends for a methodical approach on offense without a top tier target on the outside. Nevertheless, Purdy is an experienced quarterback, doesn’t turn the ball over, and makes the plays to keep his team within striking distance.
In the backfield, the Cyclones have the best running back in the Big 12 and arguably the best in the country. Sophomore Breece Hall had his breakout game against West Virginia last season and this season is ascending to the top of his draft class. The 6 foot 1, 215 pound back has amassed over 1200 yards in 9 games this season. Hall has 8 games over 100 yards and 7 games over 130 yards. You will not be able to stop Breece Hall, you just hope to contain him a bit. Texas has been the only team to hold him under 100 yards all season (91 yards). However, outside of Hall, the Cyclones next leading rusher is Purdy. Hall is the workhorse in the running game as the next leading back has only 40 carries. Expect to see a heavy dose of Hall Saturday.
Although Brock Purdy’s yards per attempt average has dropped each season, the weapons in this pass game are very, very hard to stop. Three 6 foot 7 tight ends have combined for 59 catches and 764 yards. Charlie Kolar leads the way with 31 of these grabs for 417 yards. Dylan Shoener and Chase Allen both can do damage across the middle of defenses and present tough matchup problems in the WVU back 8. Junior receiver Xavier Hutchinson leads the team in receiving yards and ties Kolar with 4 TD grabs. This isn’t a big play passing offense but it is a problem to stop them on third down/”need to stop” situations.
Iowa State Defense
The Cyclones defense is about as good as it gets. Statistically as similar to WVU as you get, the defensive line has a hole clogger in the middle and athletic ends that make plays in the backfield. Senior JaQuan Bailey leads the team with 12 tackles for loss. His 6 sacks complement team leader Will McDonald with 6.5 sacks. A stout front 4 keeps opponents to just 108 yards per game on the ground and under 350 yards per game. Only WVU and Oklahoma best these numbers in the Big 12 Conference. Leddie Brown will have his work cut out for him to get going against the Cyclone defense.
The three linebackers are at the heart of the funnel this defense creates. This group is the most experienced on the Cyclone defense, doused with seniors and juniors. Mike Rose is the best player on this defense, at least this season (no offense to Greg Eisworth). Rose leads the team in tackles and interceptions with 76 and 4 respectively. Jake Hummel and O’Rien Vance are second and third on the team in tackles behind Rose. The style of defense Iowa State plays forces these linebackers to run free and make plays. Each one does a fantastic job in space and finish the job that is asked of them.
Iowa State has a staple cloud coverage they play that limits big play abilities of the opposing offenses. Keeping everything underneath coverage should be a focal point of every defense, but in this particular secondary, it is the golden rule. Do NOT get beat over top. They’ve found the perfect players to run this style of defense. Greg Eisworth leads this secondary and has been the best player defensively for the Cyclones for a few years. Iowa State will give up some yards through the air, ranking 7th in the Big 12 in that category, but they won’t give up huge plays. Four defensive backs have an interception each to join Mike Rose and combine for 8 total on the season. Jarret Doege will have to take what this defense gives him to protect the ball and help alleviate pressure off Leddie Brown.
Iowa State Special Teams
Connor Assalley is a decent kicker but not great. Almost automatic under 40 yards but things get hairy after that 40 yard mark. It is tough to kick in Ames. Wind, weather, and the surface play a huge factor in all of that. The Cyclones have also had some trouble on kickoffs this year ranking second to last in touchback percentage and average yardage. They’ve also given up two kickoff return touchdowns this season. This could setup favorable field position for WVU. Punting will present opportunities for WVU as well. Four different Cyclones have punted this year and opponents average almost 13 yards a return. Special teams could be a big factor Saturday with the offenses and defenses evenly matched
KEYS TO THE GAME
In the games that Iowa State has struggled, Brock Purdy has been essentially ineffective. In the losses to Louisiana Lafayette and Oklahoma State, Purdy was well below 60% completion and 200 yards passing. Against Baylor, Purdy threw three interceptions and Iowa State was lucky to escape with a victory. What do Oklahoma State and Baylor have in common? The second and third ranked passing defenses in the Big 12. First? West Virginia. Confuse Purdy with zone coverages, play fast, and force questionable throws. Zone coverage will eliminate Purdy’s ability to scramble while also helping on the big tight ends. Breece Hall will get his. Stopping Brock Purdy will go a long way to a WVU victory.
With Iowa State being such a consistent team, it’s tough to find a glaring weakness. You expect to BIG statistical differences defensively in their wins and losses. Only one is there. In wins, Iowa State gives up a little over 90 yards rushing. In losses, almost 180 yards on average. The Cyclones struggle against teams that can steal clock from them. I’m not asking for 180 yards out of Leddie Brown. But I am asking for almost 150. The second leg of the strategy to beat Iowa State is getting a BIG running game. Not an efficient one. A few 30+ yard gashes from Brown and this game stays very close.
Do NOT Beat Ourselves
We’ve been over the penalty issues this team has had this season. West Virginia is the most penalized team in the Big 12. Iowa State is the least penalized team. WVU can survive a few hustle penalties like a defensive hold or pass interference here and there. The false starts, delay of games, and holds on first downs offensively will be killer. Stay under 7 penalties for the game. This is a huge opportunity. If WVU beats themselves, it would leave an awful feeling of what could have been.
LINES & PICKS
West Virginia @ Iowa State (-6)
Iowa State has struggled with quick, solid defenses. This is the best defense Brock Purdy will see all season. Purdy will have a bit of a struggle. Breece Hall will run for over 100 yards as usual. This game hinges mostly on the effectiveness of the WVU offense. Jarret Doege hasn’t turned the ball over much this season. If he can keep that trend going and the line can create holes for Leddie Brown to squeeze through; we’re looking at a close game down the stretch. Leddie Brown will have to rip off a big run or two for the Mountaineers to pull off the upset. With how close these teams matchup, picking against the spread is a tough choice. I think the total makes more sense to put your money on with two stout defenses in a tough place to play.
Pick: u49. This game will be played between the 25 yard lines but stays under 49 with some field goals and missed kicks.