clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Know The Opponent: Iowa State Cyclones

Thanks to Kevin Fitzpatrick of Wide Right & Natty Lite for the Iowa State preview.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Iowa State v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2016 version of Iowa State football will be new head coach Matt Campbell’s debut in a major conference after taking over the program following the firing of Paul Rhoads. Despite being an overall good guy and leading ISU to some memorable victories over the likes of Nebraska, Oklahoma State and TCU, Rhoads couldn’t get enough of those ever-important things called “wins” that generally help coaches retain their jobs. 24 wins in four years followed by 8 wins in three years isn’t exactly the way you want your team to be trending.

To his credit, Rhoads leveraged those huge upsets into a lengthy contract which we’re paying dearly for. He got everyone in Ames, including Jamie Pollard, to believe in him even though his wins didn’t bear any fruit. It reminds me of a Bible verse, actually… Matthew 24:24 to be exact:

“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”

So in comes Campbell, who got his coaching career started as a GA at Bowling Green in 2003, the year he turned 24 years old. Coming off a coaching stint at Toledo where he achieved a record of 35-15 as head coach, Campbell has begun the rebuilding process in Ames and has rallied a fan base that so desperately longs for a winning program that we’re willing to shell out millions of dollars for a stadium upgrade in the midst of three consecutive dreadful seasons.

While that may seem silly, the same blind support, or “loyal sons forever true” as many fans would probably prefer I call it, is also what made an impact on Campbell when he visited Jack Trice Stadium with Toledo in 2014. The atmosphere and fan support were enough to get Campbell to take on one of the toughest jobs in college football, and so far, the majority of Cyclone fans are thrilled with the work he’s done culture building and on the recruiting trail.

Winning is tough in the Big 12, and to expect a huge improvement in year 1 under a new head coach is unfair, but all Iowa State fans want is for our team to play tough, compete, and not have shit like this happen on the regular. We think we’ve got a good one in Campbell and we’re hoping he can turn the Cyclones into a dynasty, much like Kobe Bryant did for the Lakers in the 2000s.

The Offense

Sophomore quarterback Joel Lanning returns after taking over midway through last season for the inconsistent senior Sam B. Richardson. Lanning played his first meaningful snaps during last year’s game against Baylor, in which he actually helped ISU outscore the high-powered Bears 27-10 after he took over late in the first half. (Yay for moral victories!) That hot streak continued into the next game against your beloved Longhorns, and we all remember how that turned out.

Lanning is a physical player who doesn’t mind lowering his shoulder when he scrambles, but in order for the Cyclones to take a step forward in 2016, he’ll have to improve on his 55.4% completion percentage from a year ago. Of quarterbacks last year in the Big 12 with over 100 passing attempts, Lanning was second to last in yards per attempt at 6.5 with only Kansas’ Ryan Willis being worse (5.5). It’s great to have a QB who’s a run threat, but when defenses can load up the box and still force incompletions, it’s not a good recipe for success. After ending the season 0-4 as a starter, there’s no doubt Lanning is counting the days days until his next victory.

The good news is, Iowa State’s backfield contains one of the league’s young stars in sophomore tailback Mike Warren. After rushing for 1,339 yards in his first season on the field, Warren was named a Preseason All-Big 12 running back about a month ago. The one area Warren will focus on improving in 2016 is getting the chrome wheels of the Cadillac that is his body into the end zone, as he only broke the plane 5 times last year with the now-departed short yardage back Joshua Thomas gobbling up 7 TDs on his own.

At wide receiver, there’s the ever-talented Allen Lazard, who is worth his weight in pure gold to this offense. The 6-foot-5 junior out of Urbandale, Iowa hauled in 56 receptions last year for 808 yards and 6 touchdowns, and figures to get more targets this year in a system that will rely heavily on star players. Lazard isn’t necessarily fast, but he’s smooth and can cover a large area and frustrate defenders due to his wingspan and jumping ability.

After Lazard, the most notable receiver on the roster is Trever Ryen, who is both short and speedy (much like Jeff Gordon). Ryen started his Iowa State career as a walk-on before earning a scholarship and becoming the do-everything player for the Cyclones last year. Not only does he play in the slot, he also lines up and gets carries at running back occasionally in addition to returning punts and kickoffs.

Unfortunately, the offensive line is going to be a major work in progress this year and may impede the effectiveness of our young skill players. We’ve already had our best returning lineman, Jake Campos, go down with a leg injury and he will likely be out for the season. However, new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Tom Manning is apparently one of the best O-line gurus in the country, so maybe he’ll be able to work some magic. Whether or not that happens, any more injuries up front would be devastating as there’s little to no depth in the ranks of the big hefties.

Scheme-wise, you can expect an offense with spread concepts, but with a focus on running the ball. It only makes sense based on Coach Campbell’s history coupled with having Mike Warren in the backfield. If he gets fed enough, the lightning-quick kid Warren could end up getting his jersey retired -- just like the Seattle Mariners did for “The Kid” Ken Griffey Jr earlier this year.

The Defense

Campbell is switching the defense to a 4-2-5 after Rhoads had implemented a 3-4 scheme in his final season. This is a welcome change, as last year it often felt like the Cyclones were being terrorized on defense and needed help from a special agent or something to prevent a complete disaster. Hopefully the 4-2-5 will be more effective at defending the pass-happy teams in the conference and get more of the Cyclones’ best defensive players on the field at the same time.

The position groups on defense for Iowa State are like night and day. The night part is the defensive line and linebackers, as both have lost key contributors from last year and join the offensive line as positions that have razor-thin depth. Dale Pierson, the top pass-rusher from a year ago, has graduated, so we’ll miss the 8 sacks he tallied last year along with his ability to seemingly put a shot clock on opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hands. Even though Pierson is gone, interior lineman Demond Tucker has the potential to perform at an All-Big 12 level if he can improve his conditioning and stay on the field.

Meanwhile, the secondary, at least on paper, could be one of the best units in the conference with guys like Kamari Cotton-Moya and Brian Peavy hounding offensive players down the field. (Defensive back Jamaal Richardson is part of the secondary too, just so you’re aware.) It’s a safe bet that ISU will be much better against the pass than the run this year.

In Conclusion

There will be some growing pains in Matt Campbell’s first year, but he’s got some stars on offense to go along with a defense that should be stout against the pass. Iowa State might be able to surprise some people this year, but one thing is certain:

There’s 0 chance we surprise Texas.