The Chalkboard: Previewing the West Virginia - Iowa State Football Game

It's easy to label the West Virginia - Iowa State contest as a "trap" game, but the analysis should go deeper than that. We head to The Chalkboard for a look at the key factors in play as the Mountaineers host the Cyclones.

Past Iowa State teams have routinely been offense-challenged, making it very difficult for them to match up with squads in the high-scoring Big 12. While the Cyclones aren't juggernauts yet, they have been improving down the stretch, gaining more than 450 yards in four consecutive games while averaging 444 over their last nine outings. That makes for an interesting face-off with the West Virginia defense, which is coming off a shutout against woeful Kansas.

Cyclone opponents, even if they weren't playing at peak efficiency, could often play a waiting game against ISU while waiting for an opening. Teams could play conservatively on defense and initiate a field position battle, knowing that ISU couldn't move the ball enough to get an advantage. That usually led to wins. Recently though, with freshman running back Mike Warren (1,265 yards) and quarterback Joel Lanning (1,084 passing yards plus 343 rushing), Iowa State has the ability to strike and win such attrition battles. Add in special teams productivity to the tune 17.5 yards per punt return, and this game isn't going to be the walkover that the Mountaineers enjoyed a week ago.

WVU will attempt to make the Cyclones one-dimensional, and in this instance that means cutting down Warren's lanes and keeping Lanning in the pocket. With a defensive front that is playing as well as it has all season, look for the Mountaineers to be aggressive in filling running lanes and keeping Warren bottled up. That will open some one-on-one chances for an ISU receiving corps that has seven players with double-digit receptions, but one of the weaknesses in Lanning's game is his 56% completion rate. With some pressure, the Mountaineers will hope to keep him from the rhythm needed to put together extended scoring drives.

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A lot of emphasis is often placed on being “balanced” offensively, but that's just a buzzword that is open to interpretation. Does it mean running and passing the ball roughly the same number of times? Gaining the same number of yards in each play phase? Or something else?

In many instances, one of the former gets applied, so a team that does more of one than the other doesn't get the “balanced” credit. In terms of raw plays, that would be West Virginia, with 502 rushes and 310 passes this year. Even assigning, say, 30 of those runs as plays that were actually passes but resulted in quarterback scrambles due to pressure, the Mountaineers aren't balanced – at least by that definition.

Looking at yardage, though, and WVU is as level as a teeter-totter in mid-swing. WVU has gained 244 yards per game on the ground against 225 through the air. That's about as balanced as it gets.

What most coaches mean, though, when they talk about balance is the ability to either run or pass – not the necessity of doing so every game. That allows offenses to attack what opposing defenses choose to yield, or where they are weakest. Teams that can do so, and that also can run “packaged” plays, where the QB has the option to either hand off or pass the ball after the snap, are the true definition of balanced. West Virginia is getting there, even though its passing game is still a work in progress, and it sometimes still runs into a loaded box, because its been strong enough to do so and still win matchups and gain ground. Can that continue against Iowa State and Kansas State? 

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Iowa State’s eight losses this season are to teams with a combined 68-17 record. Kansas State has six of those losses, and is the only sub-.500 team the Cyclones have lost to this year. In four of those losses, ISU led or was tied at the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter.

That last stat leads to the most telling one of the Iowa State campaign. Through the first three quarters of games in 2015, the Cyclones have hung right with the opposition, trailing in total points by just a 241-233 count. However, in the fourth quarter, it all falls apart, as they are on the short end of a 121-61 tally. Whether that's caused by lack of depth, lack of experience or something out, it has been the failure to close out games late that will keep the Cyclones at home for bowl season.

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The PR and happy talk aspects of corporate America are visible more and more every day in the sports information departments of schools. Controlling the message and accentuating the positive are the only goals these days. The latest case in point: Despite firing head coach Paul Rhoads last week and putting him into the awkward and uncomfortable position of coaching this game as a lame duck, the Iowa State athletic communications staff included the following in its game notes:

”Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads will coach in his final game on Saturday, ISU announced on Nov. 22. He has a 32-54 record in seven seasons as the Cyclone head coach, leading ISU to three bowl games in his first four seasons.”

It makes is sound as if Rhoads resigned on his own. And why include accomplishments when it was the negatives that led to his firing? And that's not all – there's also a listing of more of his achivements later in the notes package. Of course, there probably shouldn't be a big write-up on why Rhoads was let go (the blown lead to K-State last week carried a lot of weight, despite the feeble protestations emanating from Ames), but it just seems odd to see Rhoads' accomplishments trumpeted when those didn't carry enough weight to save his job.

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This game offers the last chance for many people to watch the Mountaineer seniors in person, and there's one in particular that deserves a hearty cheer, as he's been somewhat undervalued in his career. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski will be WVU's leading tackler this year, and if he can get 30 more stops this season, will tie Karl Joseph with 284 career tackles. He's also underrated on pass defense, having produced five picks and seven pass breakups during his tenure, again tops among any current linebackers. While his name is often rattled off when listing good defensive players, I still think he's undersold. Some of that has to do with his personality, which is so unassuming (at least publicly) that he didn't correct WVU officials for three years when they were pronouncing his name incorrectly. Some is because he isn't a flashy player. He simply gets the job done, play after play after play. Take a few snaps to focus on #35, and you'll see the way the position should be played.

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