1. Make ISU throw the ball - After watching Minnesota WR Ron Johnson burn the Iowa Defense repeatedly in the 2nd half of last week's 42-24 Iowa victory, most fans and analysts have been worried about the Iowa pass defense. There has been reason for concern ever since senior CB Matt Stockdale was lost for the season during the Michigan game, but that will not be the focus of the Iowa staff in preparing for Iowa State.
The coaching staff will indeed be working with getting D.J. Johnson to turn and see the ball in pass coverage. They will also be trying to get the DL back to full strength so there is more of a pass rush this week (there will also be more stunting than the vanilla defense of last week). However, Iowa State does not have a great WR like Lee Evans of Wisconsin, Marquise Walker of Michigan, or Johnson of Minnesota. Lane Danielsen and Craig Campbell have had their moments for ISU this season at WR, but they are not in the class of the wideouts listed above. Other than the games against exceptional receivers listed above, the Iowa Defense has been very strong against the pass this season.
Quarterback Senaca Wallace has had a good season for Iowa State this season, but he is not the superstar that the media in the state of Iowa has tried to turn him into. He is 147-242 in passing for 1,816 yards, 10 TDs, and 7 interceptions. To put that into perspective, Kyle McCann is 135-209 for 1,736 yards, 15 TDs, and 10 interceptions. Besides splitting time with Brad Banks, Kyle and the Hawks have played a tougher schedule than ISU.
Although the ISU passing game may be a little overrated, their running game has been productive for many years. Ennis Haywood has had a very good career at running back, and this season has rushed 235 times for 1098 yards and 10 TDs. Although Wallace is more of a throwing QB than a running QB, he has rushed for 464 yards and 7 TDs this season. The Iowa Defense is really strong against pro-style or "I" formation running attacks, but they have struggled with elusive QBs over the last five seasons. In the games that Iowa State has lost this season, opposing defenses like Kansas State and Colorado have stopped the Cyclone ground game. Like most teams, the Cyclone Offense is not as effective when it is forced to become one-dimensional. Although the Iowa Defense did not play that well against the pass last week, they must employ the same concept of stopping the run first again this week.
Even though Iowa should be worried about Senaca's ability to be elusive and gain yards on the ground, he is not in the same class as Indiana QB Antwaan Randle El. Randle El has double the seasonal rushing yards that Wallace has, and is college football's record holder for all-time QB rushing yardage. If the Hawks can take Wallace's running threat away and stop Haywood, the Hawks will take their chances with a one-dimensional passing attack that does not have a WR like Ron Johnson.
2. Continue to win the line of scrimmage - If the Iowa Defense does its job and the team does not commit stupid penalties and turnovers, the OL will eventually dominate the Cyclone defensive front seven. Iowa is ranked 37th in the nation in rushing offense with an average of 176.7 yards per game, but in the last several weeks the OL and running game have been dominating the line of scrimmage at a much better clip. In the last two weeks, the Hawks ran for 297 yards against Northwestern and followed up the superior performance with 267 rush yards against Minnesota.
Northwestern and Minnesota have weak defenses up front, and Iowa State's front seven is in the same class. While the overall ISU defensive numbers are average, the rush defense ranks 90th in the nation as they give up an average of 198.4 rushing yards per game. Yes, playing Nebraska and their great rushing attack has hurt the ISU averages, but the Cyclones have also played UNI, Kansas, Baylor, and other weaker teams which should more than make up for playing the Huskers.
Colorado and Kansas State are talented teams, but are not national top-10 teams. Yet in recent ISU home games against those two teams, the visiting squad was able to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball very effectively. Even though Iowa will go into Saturday's game without three of their offensive linemen, their OL and ground game have the ability to dominate the ISU Defense.
Do not be fooled by how ISU plays defense in the first quarter. Coach McCarney will have the players sky high when the games starts. The Iowa State Defense will come out hitting and playing physical, but most of that will come from the adrenaline of the moment. Adrenaline will eventually wear off, and Iowa should take over if the team stays away from mistakes and plays good defense themselves. ISU may stack the line of scrimmage to stop the Hawk running game, but WR Kahlil Hill and TE Dallas Clark will make them pay if they try that.
3. Protect the ball - Besides the ISU ground game, the other major concern Hawkeye fans should have is the turnover/mistake battle. Iowa is ranked 59th in the country in turnover margin as they are -1. Iowa State has done a very good job of holding onto the football this season, as they are +10.
Iowa is currently has a record of 6-4 going into the game, but they could have easily been at least 8-2 if they would have done a better job of keeping mistakes to a minimum in key games. Too many close losses were a result of Iowa losing the turnover battle or committing around ten penalties. Although blocked punts or poor punting is not an official turnover, the punting situation has also really hurt the team this season.
The turnovers, penalties, and punting game have been much better the last two weeks. Besides reducing the turnovers, the Hawkeye Offense has been so effective that the punt team has hardly seen the field. When David Bradley did get a chance to punt in the Minnesota game last week, he boomed a Jason Baker-like punt. To keep their momentum going on Saturday, this sort of mistake-free football must continue in Ames.
In addition to keeping mistakes to a minimum, Kahlil Hill could have an outstanding game on Saturday in the return department. He has been very good on punt and kick returns all season, and the ISU kicking game has been inconsistent. Not only does Hill have a chance to win the special teams battle for Iowa, but K Nate Kaeding is a better kicker than ISU's Tony Yelk.
4. Winning with the seniors - How many times has a class at Iowa State beaten Iowa all four years while they were in school? Zero! However, that record is on the line Saturday as Ennis Haywood and the other ISU seniors have never lost to Iowa during their three years. Iowa leads the all-time series, 33-15. ISU has won three games in a row three times, but never four.
When Aaron Kampman and the other Iowa seniors committed to Iowa, the Hawks had won the last 15 games in the series. Dan McCarney and the Iowa State coaches and fans always circle the Iowa game as the most important game on their schedule, but this is the first year that I can remember Iowa having more motivation to beat ISU than the other way around. Iowa State has played the role of the bitter underdog that would rather beat Iowa and go 1-10 than have a good season in the Big XII and lose to Iowa. Their motivation is always about the lack of respect they get from Iowa, and the envy many of their players have for the Iowa program. Every time they win, the ISU fans storm the field and celebrate like they have never beaten Iowa before.
This year is different. Would you want to be an Iowa senior that never beat Iowa State? There is a huge difference between a 6-5 and 7-4 record, and a 7-4 record would lead to a better bowl and a possible 8-4 season. An 8-4 season would be considered a very good year for this football team, but the Iowa seniors aren't really thinking about that right now. Kampman, Hill, Ladell Betts, and the other Iowa seniors are too good to let their class go 0-4 versus the Cyclones. If you look at the rosters of these two teams, Iowa has more quality senior players that have been a key to the team success than ISU. Games like this are usually won with better players and senior leadership, and Iowa looks to have both of those advantages this season. Iowa State has the momentum of winning the last three games in the series and having the game at home, but that might not be enough on Saturday. The Iowa seniors should be the difference.