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2015 Kansas State Early Opponent Preview: Iowa State

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What do you get when you combine a weak offense with a less-than-stellar defense and a tough schedule? You get Iowa State.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Rhoads: fiery or just fired?

A magical upset on a cool night in November way back in 2011 buoyed Paul Rhoads reputation as a fiery spokesperson for America's ultimate underdog team (Aaron Torres, FOXSports). Four years later, it's safe to say the good will from that win over #2 Oklahoma State has all but evaporated. Rhoads himself, in a rare moment of candor, admitted that winning just five games in two seasons was having a negative impact, especially on recruiting (Randy Peterson, Des Moines Register). [1]

Still, Rhoads, while probably on the hot seat, is unlikely to be fired after this season, unless the wheels fall off completely, and Iowa State is relegated to Kansas territory. Rhoads signed a $20 million, 10 year extension in 2011 that might keep him in Ames just a little longer, regardless of how the Cyclones do in 2015.

No playmakers on offense

For all that, Rhoads is not Iowa State's biggest problem heading into 2015. Whatever else his faults, he's a decent coach, and in Mark Mangino, the Cyclones have both experience and ability on their side. So what gives? Well, for starters, there are no real stars at the skill positions on the roster. Quarterback Sam Richardson did see some efficiency gains in 2014, improving his completion percentage and cutting down on interceptions, but for the most part, he was nothing to write home about.  He was not helped either by his own injuries or by the relative lack of experience in the receiving corps. That should change in 2015, with Quenton Bundrage back and Allen Lazard, who caught his first touchdown pass against Kansas State in 2014, ready to make a meaningful impact. Look for the Cyclones to make use of Richardson's efficiency and move the sticks with the short passing game.

There is no way to sugar coat the rest of Iowa State's offensive woes though. The running game in 2014 was abysmal. Neither Richardson nor any of Iowa State's usual stable of running backs were especially productive. No running back averaged more than five yards a carry last season, and (unusually for Iowa State), the entire backfield only managed about 1400 yards total, a good chunk of which came from Richardson. Leading rushers Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy are both gone, so expect production to fall off even from last season's low bar.

The lone bright spot for Iowa State may be on the offensive line, a unit that returns a lot of experience  and size to match. Running behind that line should help the Cyclones pick up some yardage. Better blocking should also benefit Tyler Brown, the lone running back still on the team with triple digit yardage from last season.

In short, while the passing game is unlikely to be much better than last year, it could be just as efficient, and it may not need to be that great if the running game comes together. It would be impractical to predict big things for Iowa State's offense, but it's unlikely to be as bad as a year ago, assuming the starting lineup stays healthy.

Not many playmakers on defense either

Offense was not Iowa State's only weakness last year. The rushing defense was horrendous, ranking 120th out of all FBS teams, and giving up nearly 250 yards a game. (For comparison, that's about 15 spots worse than Kansas). The inability to stop the run forced an otherwise decent pass rush into reaction mode. On the defensive line, the Cyclones were hit with the double whammy of having to retool the unit with new players and then losing those players to injury.

The outlook for 2015 allows for a bit of confidence. For one, the starters on the defensive line have some experience under their belts. For another, junior college transfer Demond Tucker has infused Iowa State's defense with a bit of confidence and swagger, the sort of attitude adjustment that could spell the difference between victory and defeat in a close contest. Finally, Cyclones fans are pretty high on the 2015 secondary, which features Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in Kamari Cotton-Moya. If Iowa State can develop some semblance of a pass rush, a stout secondary could make an impact in Big 12 play.

Prediction time

Last season, a game Iowa State team gave Kansas State a real fright in Ames, playing their better regarded opponents down to the wire. Some of that was on the Wildcats defense and its complete failure to play even passable football after the first quarter. Thanks to some late-game fireworks from Cyclone-by-birth Jake Waters, Kansas State escaped Ames with a victory.

Farmageddon always seems a bit too close to call. Going back to 2008, only one game (a 41-7 Kansas State win in 2013) has been decided by more than a single score. But even with improvements on both sides of the ball, it's hard to predict a Cyclone victory in Manhattan. Iowa State will keep it close through three quarters, but the Wildcats will pull away eventually. Kansas State 31 Iowa State 21.

[1] Yes, I'm as shocked as you are that a city that does not exist still has a daily newspaper!