There are more daunting openers for Iowa State's Big 12 brethren — pity Oklahoma State in Arlington against the Seminoles — but there might not be a more difficult game than the one sneaking up Saturday for the Cyclones, against a dominant FCS team in North Dakota State, which runs an offense that went out of style with NSync; which masks its true identity by breaking in a new coach and a new quarterback in Carson Wentz; which returns five back-seven starters on defense; which has been there (Manhattan) and done that (24-21).
Later this week we'll muse on the Bison defense but I'm going to use today to touch on the offense. Paul Rhoads had the quote of the press conference Monday when he spelled out f-u-l-l-b-a-c-k, to help those of us who aren't dinosaurs, and indeed, that's what you notice right off the bat when you watch the Bison. Fullbacks become tight ends, tight ends become full backs, one play after another. There's so much motion, shift and trade of formation — Wally Burnham is surely locked into the film room, preaching assignment contain and play recognition, and it won't be an easy first test for starting middle linebacker Alton Meeks.
I mean, this is crazy.
The play was defended exceptionally well. The purpose of all the screen grabs is to illustrate all the movement that can occur within a three-second timeframe.
Starters returning: 3
Carson Wentz steps in after redshirting and then waiting his turn for two seasons. The 6-foot-6 Wentz is a more-than-capable runner with quick feet and good agility and, as his 2010 highlight tape shows, the makings of a good arm. You'd think the past four years have allowed plenty of time to hone those tools. He's got the makings of a tremendous quarterback — and the Cyclones will probably be lucky not to have to face Wentz in November — but don't underestimate the fact Wentz is making his first career start, on the road, in front of 55,000 fans of the enemy. The Cyclones will look to rattle him.
John Crockett was the backup in 2013, yet he still ran for 1,277 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He's a total beast and will also return kicks.
Usually a position we gloss over, but not this week. Andrew Bonnet, a Council Bluffs native, has some experience (and is the one who made the reception in the above sequence). At 6-foot-3, 250-pounds, he's an imposing lead-blocker who Iowa State will have to navigate around. Watch out for him in the flats, too, and especially off the play-fake: 16 receptions for 148 yards and two scores.
The Bison will operate mostly out of two-wideout sets. Flanker Carey Woods is a new starter. Split end Zach Vraa isn't. The 6-foot-2 senior is seventh in program history in receptions (113) and yards (1,810) and fourth in touchdowns (19). Per his career averages, he'll catch nearly four passes Saturday. Seven times last season Vraa had 100 receiving yards or more in a game, so it comes down to what Vraa does after the snag. Big task for Nigel Tribune.
Big target Kevin Vaadeland is the one to watch in the redzone. He led the FCS among tight ends last season with eight scores — on just 20 receptions.
The only returning starter is left tackle Joe Haeg, last season's starting right tackle, who's replacing All-American Billy Turner. Haeg is 6-foot-6, 299 pounds. From left to right, the Bison will go: Haeg, Adam Schueller (6-3, 304), Jesse Hinz at center (6-4, 301), Jeremy Kelly (6-6, 286) and Landon Lechler (6-7, 299). That's a lot of beef on the outside, combined with the quickness you need at guard to operate a successful power-running scheme.
Player to Watch:
Last season the Cyclones watched UNI's David Johnson run roughshod in the season-opener. The fear is Crockett will do the same. With Nigel Tribune at cornerback, ISU fans should feel OK about the slowing of Vraa, but all the question marks at defensive tackle and at linebacker mean Crockett could be in for a big day.
Matchup to Watch:
I'll go Cory Morrissey, at right defensive end, against left tackle Joe Haeg. As one of maybe three known commodities on defense, Morrissey needs to have a remarkable season for Iowa State's unit to be in the top half of the conference, and that starts with his pass rush. The two sacks he had in 2013 aren't enough, and he knows it. There's nothing I saw of Haeg's film against Towson in the FCS title that makes me think Morrissey should struggle. He's expected to wreak havoc all morning and afternoon.