Iowa State is the rare team that seems equally overrated and underrated.
That is, if you assemble 100 college fans and ask them about the Cyclones, 40 of them will opine that they're pretty damn good citing a 3-0 record, wins over Iowa and UConn, and appear poised to make a statement against a young Texas team in Ames; 40 will point out that they won every game by the skin of their teeth (including Northern Iowa), Big 10 football is aesthetic rape and exists only to make us all feel athletic, and UConn's players wear pastel sweaters tied around their shoulders with white deck shoes.
You may have noticed that adds up to 80. The remaining 20 responded, "There's an Iowa STATE? Huh. Cool." Condescension phase now over, I will remind you that they thoroughly whipped our asses last year. Needless to say, this game is a sell-out and the credibility Paul Rhoads would gain with the ISU base by pairing Iowa and Texas wins in the same season is inestimable.
The Cyclone defense is high effort, have some talent at each level of the defense (and lack it too), and spend a lot of time bailing out a Cyclone offense that likes to put them in tough situations. It would be disingenuous to describe them as good (26.7 ppg - somewhat deceiving due to 3OT with Iowa, 365 ypg allowed, 4.9 yards per play) but I can offer a Probably Better Than You Think. This is their best unit since 2005.
We may face our first team that feels they have the athletes in the secondary to challenge us in man coverage and attack our running game. At least long enough to see if we'll lose our composure in front of the crowd.
Historically, Iowa State has trouble getting pressure on the QB without bringing numbers and their DL, while otherwise adequate, is the primary culprit. This group is solid against the run and do a pretty good of keeping the ISU LB's clean. From my limited viewing, I think their DTs Ruempolhamer (has been dinged off and on) and McDonough are adequate muscle inside, but don't create much value beyond that. The DEs, Lattimer and Neal, are both a little undersized, but Lattimer is a high effort pass rusher who won't quit on the play. He murdered us last year with two sacks and several TFL against our miserable OL. I've been unimpressed with Neal in the games I've seen of him.
The heart of the Cyclones defense are LBs Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. They are classic, old school LBs (read: white) who play a lot faster than they test, are physical, and are instinctive in the passing game (combined for 7 ints last year). Really high quality players. ISU pairs them with a nickel (Deon Broomfield) on a lot of their snaps, but when they go traditional 4-3, they bring in sturdy Matt Tau’fo’o.
CB Leonard Johnson (Rhoads Scholar?) is a high level athlete and a legitimate baller and his off-the-field issues appear to be behind him. Legitimate All-Big 12 who will support against the run and is physical enough to manhandle your best receiver. He's paired with 5-7, 175 pound Jeremy Allen and I expect him to be a special project for our offense. Jacques Washington is their 2nd leading tackler, extremely active, and Iowa State's other high level athlete in the secondary. I like him - he sticks his head in there and he can cover some ground. Ter'Ran Benton starts at the other safety after a move from cornerback and I remember him primarily as the guy teams used to throw at.
Basically, a physical zone running game paired with QB Steele Jantz running around making things happen that range from amazing to awful. I'd like to offer something more sophisticated than that, but there it is. The Cyclone offense runs through Jantz and they live and die by his play. He is simultaneously why the offense works and why it doesn't.
Diaz will focus on killing ISU's running game to put the entire work load on Jantz, contain him in the pocket, and use our LBs on stunts to exploit a young center and an ISU OL that's not catlike. Our secondary will face their biggest test to date, mostly because ISU's WRs are legit and Jantz's ability to extend the play will force them to cover route adjustments during play breakdowns, intermixed with a need for good tackling against ISU's three step passing game. They'll need to dial in mentally. I expect a good opportunity for turnovers.
There are OLs that are good huge and there are OLs that are bad huge. Ole Miss has an entire OL of bad huge. LSU has good huge. Iowa State is a mix of both. LT Kelechi Osemele goes 6-6, 350, is the best tackle in the league, and has started 36 games for the Cyclones. He'll play for ten years in the NFL unless he eats his way out. Guards 6-3, 340 Hayworth Hicks and 6-4 320 Ethan Tuftee are maulers, but they both have quickness deficits. RT Brayden Borris goes 6-6, 300 and he's exploitable if Jeffcoat shows up and C Tom Forniok 6-3 280 is the only ISU OL without severe sleep apnea and some hope of living past 50. He's an undersized freshman and presumably Manny Diaz will make Kheeston Randall aware of this fact. I'll go ahead and list 6-6 265 TE Kurt Hammerschmidt here since he's primarily used as a blocker and is good for one 11 yard catch per game.
STEELE JANTZ. If the name and Color Me Badd haircut don't communicate what's going on with this cat, no analysis will help you. He's ISU's 2nd leader rusher and his mediocre passing stats belie his late game clutchosity. 61 of 106 for 666 yards, 6 TDs, 6 Ints has just enough 6s to suggest some degree of Satanic worship. I just call them like I see them.
RB Shontrelle Johnson averages 4.9 yards per carry and his 5-9 190 pound frame is ideal for maneuvering between ISU's OL behemoths. He's more quick than fast and they alternate him with the underwhelming James White and Jeff Woody to keep his load below 20 carries. The Cyclones don't use their RBs a great deal in the passing game either beyond basic dump offs. Not a great unit and they should run the ball better.
These guys are their best offensive unit and Lenz, Reynolds, Horne, and Darks are all solid FBS wide outs. It's a well distributed work load, we can't focus on any one guy, but 6-2 210 Darius Reynolds is their most explosive downfield and red zone threat averaging 18.5 per catch with 4 TDs on the year. They're a very solid test for the entire secondary.
On the season, Iowa State averages 4.9 yards per play and allows exactly the same. They're 3-0, but the three wins are by a combined 8 points. These things are not coincidence. Is this a sign of an extremely well-coached team with better talent than imagined that knows how to win? Or are they a mediocre football team that's on the happy side of a number of probability coin flips and they're about to regress to the mean? Whatever the answer, they play hard as hell, and unlike UCLA, their players are bought in to the program completely.
I personally suspect they're more the latter than the former (AD Jamie Pollard disagrees) and barring implosion from our young QBs, I expect a hard fought Longhorn win in our first truly hostile road environment.
What say you?