Iowa State spent 2016 in transition; new coach, new direction and lots of growing pains. Matt Campbell has been a winner throughout his career, but he finds himself at an institution that has spent its time as perennial fixture in the bottom tier of the Big 12.
Coach Campbell has recruited above historical norms and infused the team with raw talent in 2016 and will do so again in 2017. The on-field product in 2016 was disjointed at best, but Campbell infused the team with his process and his talent more and more as the season progressed.
When analyzing Iowa State and their prospects for 2017, it is vital to view the final 4 games of the season as an entity unto itself. Prior to the final stretch of the season, Iowa State achieved two close calls against Oklahoma State and Baylor. Games they should have won, but collapsed as Tier 3 teams do. The final 4 games showed a different team, a different spirit, and different results.
The Cyclones went 2-2 in that stretch while playing two Tier 1 teams (OU and WVU) and two comrades in the basement (KU and TTU) of the Big 12. A 10 point loss to OU was a standout performance while the WVU game got away from them after being down by only 5 points at the half. KU was a solid road win and the Tech game was a laugher where the Cyclones hit on all cylinders.
Most importantly, the season long statistical footprint of the Cyclones was reversed in the final 4 games. Statistically, they played winning football. Iowa State outscored their opponents 140-117 and averaged .5 points per play compared to a .39 number posted by their opponents. Offensive and defensive efficiency increased and it was followed by wins.
A .500 win percentage is not what Tier 2 or Tier 1 teams seek, but it is a leap forward for a Tier 3 perennial. In fact, it is a sign of the opportunity to create a baseline and improve from there. So, the question is, will the Cyclones remain an easy win on the schedule, or will they show their teeth and become a “storm” of competence and build upon their final stretch of 2016?
Here are the keys to sustained success.
Run the Ball
The first 8 games of the year revealed an anemic running game for the Cyclones. The final 4 games revealed one of the best in the conference. Iowa State averaged 3.6 yards per attempt in the first 8 games before exploding to 5.6 yards per carry in the final 4.
Credit the offensive line’s improvement and the infusion of David Montgomery, a true freshman, as the primary runner.
Iowa State boasts David Montgomery and a rejuvenated Mike Warren in the backfield. They can always utilize Joel Lanning in the QB power run game, but his ascendance to the starting middle linebacker position may hamper that run package.
In addition, the offensive line shapes up well for Iowa State. 4 star redshirt Sean Foster and graduate transfer from Michigan, Dave Dawson, will seek to shore up weak positions. Three year starter Jake Campos returns from injury and 12 game starter Julian Good-Jones switches to his natural position at center. The final slot will be filled by a candidate with some experience and more athleticism than what was available in 2016.
If Iowa State can sustain its success from the final 4 games of 2016, it will result in increased time of possession and 3rd down conversions. Iowa State’s offense is predicated on a sustainable running attack. If they are able to average near 5.0 average per attempt, then they will have a chance to win. In addition, it will open up the passing game.
Jacob Park Has to Be a Tier 1 QB
The QB for the final 4 games of 2016 was Jacob Park. He was a 4 star recruit to Georgia who lost his way and found some footing at ISU. He exhibits top-tier physical traits and is the conference’s best QB at keeping his eyes downfield. In the final 4 games of the season he threw for 1,087 yards with a 62% completion percentage and an 8.7 yards per attempt average.
Each of those numbers places him in the top tier of Big 12 quarterbacks. For Iowa State to move in to the second tier of the Big 12, Park must sustain that rate of success. Ideally, he would increase his completion percentage to 65% and push his yards per attempt to 9.0 or above, but, at the very least, he must sustain his end of season pace.
Is it possible? Not without an effective running game. But, the receiving corp may be up to the task. All Big 12 wide receiver Allen Lazard returns as does productive freshman De’Shaute Jones. Most importantly, Iowa State will employ two large, capable tight ends. Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner will provide an option in the passing game that was absent in 2016 (6 TE receptions).
Park will have a full complement of receiving options, an improved offensive line (ISU gave up 32 sacks in 2016, worst in the conference), and a stretch of success to build on. If he can sustain his success from the final 4 games of 2016, then ISU will have a chance to win the games they competed in previously.
Suck Less on Defense
Iowa State’s defense was, let’s say…anemic. They could not stop the run and were vulnerable to the deep pass. Yet, in the final 4 games of 2016, they were able to muster a passable defensive effort. ISU out gained its opponents, created turnovers, and reduced their vulnerability to the rush by more than half a yard per attempt.
Unfortunately, the defense will be infusing a significant amount of new talent. It will be hard to be worse than what they were in 2016 and is possible to be better.
But, if they are able to sustain, by scheme or talent, their pace from the end of 2016, it is possible to stretch the win total in to Tier 2 territory. One additional stop in the game against Baylor or Oklahoma State results in season changing wins. A better performance against the run against Kansas State sustains a valiant comeback attempt.
It will be difficult for ISU to sustain a higher level of defensive performance against their Big 12 brethren, but if they can make marginal improvement, then they can move up a tier.
Can ISU Move Up?
Iowa State needs to win one or two additional Big 12 games to move to the second tier. That means they will need to pull off upsets. The schedule is not favorable as the home opponents are Texas, TCU, Kansas, and Oklahoma State. Five conference road games are difficult and it is difficult to project a road upset. The best opportunities are Baylor on the road and TCU at home.
Iowa State averaged 27 points a game and gave up 31 points a game. In order to move up a tier, they will have to score 31+ points per game and maintain the defensive effort. Running the ball with efficiency and throwing the ball with tier 1 competency gives the Cyclones an opportunity to increase their scoring output.
A fast start with three non-conference wins and picking up three conference wins would make ISU bowl eligible. The most difficult leap in the Big 12 is from Tier 3 to Tier 2. ISU has the talent to achieve the leap, but is climbing a “schedule” mountain. Any defensive improvement and sustained offensive effort will provide a foothold on the way up.