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Kicking the Tires: Iowa State Cyclones

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K-State is now bowl eligible after a wild win in Stillwater. The Wildcats look to seal a winning Big 12 record on Senior Day.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week’s wild win in Stillwater encapsulated a lot of what can be great and what can be maddening about K-State football. The Wildcats deployed third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson with impressive results through three quarters. And K-State’s defense held the Cowboys’ high-powered attack in check for about as long.

But it looked like it would all come undone when Thompson was hurt in the fourth quarter and Oklahoma State got the ball back, down five, with plenty of time to score. Even after the Cowboys threw four consecutive incompletions and K-State took back the ball with 1:59 and OSU out of timeouts, the K-State coaching staff seemed unaware that there are 119 seconds in 1:59, and that three downs with a 40-second play clock equals 120 seconds.

In any event, K-State won and is now bowl eligible for the eighth straight year. With a win over Iowa State, the Wildcats would likely finish in a three-way tie for fifth in the Big 12 Conference. These aren’t the goals the players had in mind at the beginning of the season, but considering the injuries at quarterback and breaking in some key new players on defense, that’s not a disaster.

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Skylar Thompson, 33-55-2, 510 yards, 9.3 yards/attempt, 4 TDs, 85.0 yards/game

Rushing: Alex Barnes, 127 carries, 679 yards, 5.3 yards/carry, 6 TDs, 67.3 yards/game

Receiving: Byron Pringle, 28 receptions, 705 yards, 25.2 yards/reception, 6 TDs, 70.5 yards/game

Iowa State

Passing: Zeb Noland, 36-66-1, 533 yards, 8.1 yards/attempt, 2 TDs, 133.3 yards/game

Rushing: David Montgomery, 230 carries, 1,080 yards, 4.7 yards/carry, 11 TDs, 98.2 yards/game

Receiving: Allen Lazard, 55 receptions, 704 yards, 12.8 yards/reception, 9 TDs, 64.0 yards/game

Iowa State fans probably find it cute that K-State fans bemoan their team’s quarterback injury luck this year. The Cyclones are down to fourth-string QB Zeb Noland, who took over in the Oklahoma State game. Noland had a nice game against the Pokes by completion percentage and yardage, but threw for no touchdowns and was picked off. Noland had a decent game against Baylor, throwing for two touchdown passes.

If you’re looking for reason to hope, consider the relative strength (or not) of the two defenses Noland has faced. Oklahoma State is 77th by S&P+, while Baylor is 109th. Then again, K-State ranks two spots behind OSU, so maybe not.

Iowa State hasn’t won games with offense this year anyway. Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has built a top-35 unit employing dime personnel against Big 12 offenses. Whether K-State can win this game will depend on how Thompson and the offense fare against the ISU defense.

On that Iowa State defense, converted quarterback Joel Lanning leads the way in tackles with 103 stops this season. Defensive back Kamari Cotton-Moya returns to lead the secondary and has snagged three interceptions. Sophomore defensive end JaQuan Bailey has five sacks this season.

Advanced Stats

K-State Offense vs. Iowa State Defense

Much of Iowa State’s defensive surge has been built around their dime package, as described in the linked article above. Of course, dime personnel won’t be of much assistance against a K-State team that will likely only employ 10 personnel in obvious passing situations. When the Wildcats are in 11 or 21 personnel, the Cyclones won’t be able to use their dime package.

But it’s not like the Cyclones are getting killed on the ground even against the better rushing teams they’ve faced. They held Iowa to 164 yards on 4.0 yards per carry back in September. West Virginia topped 200 yards against the Clones two weeks ago, but required 47 carries to get there.

If K-State is going to win this game, then the Wildcats must present a respectable ground threat to the Cyclones defense. This will probably require them to run credibly out of 10 personnel against Iowa State’s faster, lighter defensive personnel, and to get push with Winston Dimel and the tight end against ISU’s four-man fronts.

As we’ve mentioned all year, K-State paradoxically is not particularly efficient either running or passing, but are explosive at both. When the Wildcats can present run-pass conflict with the quarterback run game and the RPO and play-action counters built off it, then the Wildcats can hit for big plays even though they aren’t beating teams on a down-to-down basis.

For its part, Iowa State is a top-35 unit across the board against the run. If the Cyclones can maintain discipline against K-State’s run game and not get beat for big gains by chasing ghosts, then the Wildcats will be in trouble.

Through the air, the Cyclones profile as something of a bend-but-don’t-break outfit, with a bottom quartile Success Rate and an average IsoPPP rating. K-State probably won’t beat the Cyclones with straight drop-back passing, so the question will be whether the Wildcats and their top-15 IsoPPP passing offense (it feels so weird typing that) can make some big plays for scores, or to set up scores.

K-State Defense vs. Iowa State Offense

For all the talk about the trigger man, the strength of ISU’s offense lies in its running back and wide receivers. David Montgomery is the best back in the Big 12. The sophomore from Cincinnati is 5’11” and 219 lbs., but probably squats 550. Trent Tanking and K-State’s safeties better be ready to hit and wrap up, because Montgomery makes a living on yards after contact.

Outside, we yet again have the joy of dealing with Allen Lazard, who is one of the three best wide receivers in the Big 12. Size is again the issue here, as Lazard goes 6’5” and 222 lbs. He has five inches on our tallest cornerback, and seven over our shortest. And he’s not the only size problem outside, as Hakeem Butler is 6’6” and has 34 receptions for 563 yards.

By advanced stats, Iowa State’s offense isn’t overly impressive. They’re neither efficient nor explosive running the ball, but Montgomery will pound away for yards, and ISU’s big receivers can make contested catches to keep drives moving.

K-State’s defensive front must hold up the ISU offensive line and keep Tanking and Kirby clean to pursue Montgomery with good leverage. The Wildcats must keep ISU behind the chains and put pressure on Noland to make good throws into coverage. Those are the percentages that will win this game for the Wildcats.

In special teams, Iowa State fields an overall average unit. Kicker Chris Francis boots touchbacks on nearly two-thirds of his kickoffs, which may mitigate the possibility of a big return by DJ Reed (if healthy) or Byron Pringle.

Conclusion

This game sets up as another Farmageddon classic. Vegas favors K-State by 2.5, while S&P+ projects Iowa State to win by 1.7. At home, and on Senior Day, I’ll take the Cats to eke out a low-scoring win.

Wildcats 27, Cyclones 24