MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Iowa State, No. 15 in the CFP rankings and tied for first in the Big 12 standings, carries the banner for all those Little Engines That Could.
Matt Campbell’s Year 2 renovation has been ruggedly inspiring, bolstered by the season-changing win at Oklahoma. Yet the Cyclones (6-2, 4-1) are 2-point underdogs entering Saturday’s game at West Virginia (5-3, 3-2). Apparently a four-game road winning streak is less convincing to the oddsmakers when your program’s most recent five-game streak occurred in 1961.
Weigh that against WVU’s 2-12 record vs. Top 25 teams since 2014 and we’re headed into rough-and-gritty Four-Down Territory:
Mountaineers linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton has been tackling a different sort of mission this week: Trying to re-inflate his team after a 50-39 loss to Oklahoma State.
“It’s easy to be a captain when everything’s going good, but the true captains are the ones that step up when things are going bad,” Benton said. “This is one of the times where I’ve got to make sure the guys are still focused. We can still make something of this season.”
A berth in the Big 12 championship game remains a distant possibility for West Virginia, which must win its last four games and hope Oklahoma State or TCU loses twice.
Sophomore linebacker David Long remains as fiery as last Saturday when he made 18 tackles and seven TFLs against OSU.
“We lost a big game but we’ve still got four games left — four winnable games,” he said.
Iowa State controls its own destiny, of course. Win the last four games and they’re headed to Arlington.
That Cyclones defense
It allowed an average of 34 points in the first two games, but less than 14 over the most recent six-game stretch. Part of the improvement involved switching from a four-man front to three-down linemen and emulating, you guessed it, West Virginia.
“They’ve evolved into more of a three-down stack defense,” Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said, noting that the schematic newness prevents it from being as daring as Tony Gibson’s version.
“They’re not as multiple as we are, so they’re not going to blitz as much. Their philosophy is more ‘Don’t screw up. Just let the opponent screw up.’ But they’ll drop eight and keep everything in front of them.”
For West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and quarterback Will Grier this means a test of play-calling patience. Iowa State gives up only 347 yards overall (32nd nationally) and 126 on the ground (ranking 28th). In the past two wins over TCU and Texas Tech, the Cyclones yield a combined 13 points on six red-zone trips.
“They play three-deep safeties over 50 percent of the time, so they’re not going to give you very many big plays,” Spavital said. “You’re not going to have those one-, two- or three-play drives. If you’re going to move the ball successfully on this team it’s got be 10-, 15- or even 20-play drives.”
WVU’s Will Grier, the nation’s No. 9-rated passer, must be sharper than last week’s four-interception debacle, which was hampered by eight dropped passes.
“My guys left a lot of plays out there,” said West Virginia receivers coach Tyron Carrier. “We didn’t look the same, and it bothered me. It bothered them too. Everybody was waiting on that next guy to make that play, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
The quarterback is a walk-on, the top linebacker is a converted quarterback, and the No. 2 tackler is a former two-star prospect who barely touched the field last season.
Turns out these actually are your father’s Cyclones, just with a sprinkle of game-changing magic.
Starting with the QB, Kyle Kempt, who was a Cincinnati commitment in 2013 until Butch Jones left for Tennessee. West Virginia was among the schools showing interest, but Kempt signed with Oregon State and didn’t play through two seasons. So he detoured to Hutchison (Kan.) Community College, where he was No. 3 on the depth chart behind two dual-threat quarterbacks.
With no D-I offers, Kempt walked on at Iowa State last season under Campbell, a connection forged by both having attended Ohio football powerhouse Massillon High. That arrangement turned fortuitous when this year’s starter and co-captain Jacob Parks took leave before the Week 5 game at Oklahoma.
Kempt engineered the 38-31 upset in Norman and has gone 4-0 as a starter, throwing nine touchdowns against two interceptions.
Joel Lanning, the former quarterback turned Mike linebacker, ranks No. 6 in the country with 10.9 tackles per game. He still wears the No. 7 he wore in Morgantown two years ago while throwing two interceptions in a 30-6 loss.
“He’s a very instinctive player at linebacker,” Spavital said. “He just naturally knows that this is where the ball needs to spill, and if he sees a pulling guard he can play over the top.”
While Lanning’s switch to defense is the sexiest storyline, Marcel Spears looks like Iowa State’s scariest linebacker. A 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, the redshirt sophomore has sparkled of late. He made 14 tackles against Texas, made a pick-six in the 31-13 win at Texas Tech, and sealed the 14-7 upset of TCU with an interception.
“He’s got great athleticism, great balance and now you’re starting to see his in-game awareness take off,” Campbell said.
WVU trying to find stops
Seeking optimism for West Virginia’s secondary? Elijah Battle held his own against OSU All-American candidate James Washington and backup Hakeem Bailey showed his best flashes since the preseason. Figure on a decent effort from No. 1 cornerback Mike Daniels and the group might have a chance to stalemate Iowa State’s rangy receivers.
The 6-foot-6 Allen Lazard caught the decisive touchdown in Norman and top 100 yards vs. TCU, yet he’s been relatively quiet otherwise. His 59 receiving yards per game doesn’t crack the league’s top 10.
Hakeem Butler used all of his 6-foot-5 frame on a spectacular back-line touchdown catch last week, though he has compiled only 58 yards total during the past three games.
Ranked eighth among the Big 12 offenses overall and dead last in rushing, the Cyclones don’t look so frightening. Then again, the way Kansas and Baylor combined to carve up WVU for more than 1,000 yards, it makes any opponent look frightening.
Iowa State’s rushing attack is composed almost entirely of sophomore David Montgomery (89.5 yards per game and eight touchdowns). He stirs bad memories for Long, whose Winton Woods High School team lost 13-10 to Montgomery and Mount Healthy in the 2013 Ohio state playoffs. Montgomery played quarterback that night and threw the game-winning touchdown with 1:11 left.
West Virginia’s run defense ranks 106th among 129 teams in Division I, surrendering 204 yards per game.
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson cited only three players — Long, Al-Rasheed Benton and Kyzir White — as playing up to his standard currently. “We’ve got to get the rest of these guys going,” he said.