Iowa State Preview: Attack of the 'Clones?

Texas has been scouting Iowa State since early November. That's because Longhorn coaches thought the Cyclones would be their opponent in 2005 Big 12 title game. Then again, Saturday's conference opener could be a sneak preview of this year's league championship in Kansas City.

After all, somebody's got to win the Big 12 North. Once the boys from Ames get past their weekend in Austin, the schedule favors Iowa State. The Cyclones get Nebraska, Texas Tech and Missouri at home. They do travel to Oklahoma, but they get the Sooners the Saturday after the tank-draining Hate-Fest in Dallas (now bearing the politically correct moniker of Red River Rivalry). The 'Clones will likely drop both of those road games but, then again, what do you call a Big 12 North team with three league losses?

Division champ.

The consensus is that ISU boasts the Big 12's most seasoned QB in dual-threat Bret Meyer, and the junior operates behind one of the better O-lines in college football. A healthy RB Stevie Hicks (not to be confused with the lead singer for Fleetwood Mac) provides the downhill running game that has become a recent staple of Cyclone football. The flipside is that ISU's pass defense is so inexperienced and porous that Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis might be tempted to turn the page in his playbook. But Texas coaches are convinced that, despite the youth in the Cyclone secondary, ISU's game plan is to force Texas into an intermediate passing game.

"They'll come in here Saturday with a lot of people on the line of scrimmage," Texas coach Mack Brown said, "and they're going to try to make our quarterbacks throw the ball well. And we're not afraid to."

During the final game in each of the last two seasons, the Cyclones have been a FG away from representing the North in the Big 12 title game. In a nutshell, it represents the current state of affairs in Ames: ISU has a proclivity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by blowing leads in the games where a 'W' would have put the program over the hump. Iowa State built a double-digit lead last Saturday against Iowa, and lost. Iowa State had three overtime games last season, and lost all three. Iowa State held a 10-7 halftime lead the last time they came to Austin, and lost. Iowa State led the league in 2005 with six Red Zone turnovers.

Then again, ISU has gone bowling five of the past six seasons. ISU has upended instate rival Iowa six of the past eight years. Last season, ISU throttled Texas A&M on Aggie Homecoming (42-14), while beating Colorado and Kansas State in Ames for the fist time since 1983. Yet, ISU head coach Dan McCarney -- the Dean of the Big 12 coaches in his 12th season in Ames -- is one of the most highly-regarded men in the business. But he is still looking for a signature win to show that ISU is more than just an also-ran in the lightly-regarded Big 12 North.

A road win over No. 7/8 Texas would be a heckuva John Henry for the Cyclones.

IOWA STATE OFFENSE

Texas coaches dissect film from each-and-every game an opponent played the previous year. Given the film room emphases on Iowa State last November, Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik observes that -- other than a few additional running plays for QB -- not much changed in ISU's offensive strategy.

"They'll have a new wrinke like every offense does every week," Chizik said. "We'll see it early, and then they'll do it five or six times during the game."

McCarney has added more draws and traps for Meyer, but his staple is still his arm. Meyer became ISU's all-time passing leader last weekend with 5,391 career yards. He is remarkably efficient and set a school record last year completing 155-straight passes last year without an INT. Then again, ISU rarely goes for the long ball, preferring to bootleg Meyer to set up an intermediate passing game. (Just a thought: Saturday's contest could set the record for most hitch passes in a game).

Meyer's favorite target is 6-5 WR Todd Blythe. The junior owns the ISU career TD mark with 21. He led the Big 12, and was ranked second nationally, with 19.6 ypc.

"They do a lot to get him isolated, one-on one," Brown said. "The problem is, he's not the only one. They really spread it around. They've got a fleet of good receivers."

Senior WR Austin Flynn led the team with 56 catches last season. The Deer Park, Tex. product is a converted quarterback who, in 2003, was the first freshman to start a season at QB in ISU history. The other WR is senior Jon Davis, who missed the second half of spring drills with a ruptured achilles. He was not expected back until mid-season but started the season-opener.

Hicks ran for 1,062 yards during his sophomore campaign but durability is an issue. He saw his totals dip to 545 yards in 2005 during an injury-ravaged season (hip, ankle, groin). He was also slowed by a turf toe in 2003. This season, Hicks is healthy and averaging 90.3 ypg and 4.5 ypc.

"I think it's going to be a big test for our linebackers because of their running back," Longhorns safety Michael Griffin said. "He's not going to try to run around you. He runs straight down hill."

Hicks has the benefit of running behind one of college football's most veteran O-lines, anchored by All-Big 12 C Scott Stephenson.

"They have four returning starters and are very big up-front," Chizik said. "The north-and-south game is their game because they are big."

It's a big line: both tackles stand 6-7 and weigh between 320-25 pounds. Yet the group allowed a league-high 39 sacks last year.

IOWA STATE DEFENSE

There are seven new starters on what has been a steadily improving Cyclone defense, yet the unit was jolted last spring with a couple of key personnel losses. All-American candidate DE Jason Berryman was kicked off the team and has been replaced by true freshman Rashawn Parker. (The other DE, Shawn Moorehead, is a walk-on who started six games last year). Then, MLB Matt Robertson was dismissed for using a banned substance. Otherwise, the only returning starters are DT Brent Curvey, SLB Adam Carper and LCB DeAndre Jackson.

The Cyclones led the league last season with 35 turnovers produced; the 19.2 ppg allowed was their best mark in a quarter-century. Through three games, ISU's run defense has yielded just 85 ypg.

"They're an old-school, bend-don't-break, make-you-go-a-long-way, hope-you-make-a-mistake, defense," Davis said.

The 'Clones base out of the 4-3 and are primarily a zone team that rarely employs nickel- or dime-packages. They blitz just 11 percent of the time (by way of comparison, Big 12 teams blitzed approximately one-third of the snaps in 2005; Ohio State blitzed Texas approximately 45 percent of the time the past two ball games). In fact, the Cyclones have blitzed just 24 times in three games.

"That will be one of the lowest numbers (of blitzes) that we'll talk about all year," Davis said.

Davis doesn't think the Cyclones will bring the house just because Texas plays a freshman QB.

"People do what they do. And Colt has handled blitzes extremely well. He has not been hit a single time this year that was his responsibility, where his guy hit him."

Iowa State tends to bring the FS (junior Jon Banks) closer to the LOS to overload the run. Typically, the 'Clones go with a fifth DB on third-and-very-long. Determined not to give up the homerun ball, the DBs all but concede the intermediate routes.

"If you throw it deep, you're going to have to win a jump ball because they cover you deep," Brown said. "They try to make you throw it underneath."

Stats maybe skewed this early in the season, but you can detect trends. ISU's pass defense is its weakest link, rated dead-last in the Big 12 and No. 111 nationally after yielding 286.3 ypg. The pillar of the unit is Jackson, a Garland, Tex. product who earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last season. (He also averages 23.5 yards per kick return).

The anchor of the defense is DT Curvey. The Houston Westfield product was a first-team All-Big 12 selection after registering 61 stops in 2005.

"He always plays from a tilt position," Davis said of Curvey. "You normally think of a tilt on the center, but he mainly tilts over guard. And he plays on both sides."


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