After a bye week, the Kansas State Wildcats travel to Ames, Iowa, to take on the Iowa State Cyclones — who also had a bye this past week — in a mostly-empty Jack Trice Stadium.
The lead man for the 5-2 Cyclones is fifth-year head coach Matt Campbell, who, in previous years, was a head coach at Toledo, a coordinator at Bowling Green and Division III powerhouse Mount Union. He’s an offensive-minded coach, serving as an offensive coordinator, running game coordinator and offensive line coach at those previous stops.
The Cyclones’ spread offense is predicated on sophomore running back Breece Hall, who is the best back in the league. He averages nearly 148 yards per game — 36 yards better than second place.
They run Hall out of the shotgun and like to throw at least one of their big, talented tight ends out in front of him in the run game. He is a talented down-hill runner, but they also use his lateral quickness in the stretch run game to attack the edges of the defense.
Behind an offensive line that averages well over 300 pounds, Campbell and offensive coordinator Tom Manning put together the best rushing offense in the Big 12 Conference. They are good for a hair over 200 yards per game and 19 touchdowns on the season.
At quarterback, junior Brock Purdy is a bit of a disappointment this season. The quarterback was expected to be one of the best in the Big 12, but seven games into the year, he sits in sixth place in pass efficiency and fifth in passing yards per game.
He’s thrown six interceptions to ten touchdowns in seven games this year. For comparison, he threw nine interceptions to 27 touchdowns in 13 games last year.
Iowa State helped bring the 3-3-5 defense to the Big 12 to try to stop the conference’s pass-heavy offenses. They pull a linebacker or lineman out of a more traditional 3-4 or 4-3 defense and replace him with a third safety.
The idea is to get an extra athlete on the field and keep the offense in front of them. This forces the opponent to go on sustained drives and limits explosive plays.
In the past, K-State struggled to run the ball against three-man fronts because of the way blocks line up. This Iowa State defense is already the second-best rushing defense in the conference by yards per game.
Where the Cyclones are vulnerable, perhaps ironically, is the secondary. Baylor showed an ability to move the ball through the air against Iowa State, including some big plays where they schemed receivers open down field.
At this point in the season, K-State’s offensive struggles are well-documented. The Wildcats will once again have to rely on defense and special teams plays to put them on the scoreboard.
If K-State can get interceptions and big plays in the return game that set them up with short fields, they cannot afford to settle for field goals. Aggressive play calling in the plus-territory will be a key to staying in this game.
Get to Purdy
A strength for this K-State team is its pass rush, and they will absolutely need it again this week. The Iowa State receiving corps is big and K-State’s secondary struggled with big-bodied receivers this season, so the Wildcats cannot afford to give them time to get open.
Getting to the quarterback early and often is an underrated part of K-State’s successes this year. They messed with Oklahoma redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler and TCU sophomore quarterback Max Duggan, forcing mistakes and hesitation en route to wins.
A couple of times this season, Iowa State trailed early before going on runs to win the game. Oklahoma and Baylor both coughed up early leads in losses to the Cyclones. In both games, Iowa State caught up in the second half to win.
K-State proved they are capable of giving up leads. In their loss to Oklahoma State, the Wildcats led 12-0 at half before giving up 13 unanswered third-quarter points and lost 20-18. The Wildcats will have to answer the Cyclone scores all game to have a chance at a win.
PREDICTION: K-State will struggle to move the ball but turnovers, a big play in the pass game and a punt or kickoff return touchdown keep it close. Iowa State wins, but K-State covers the 10-point spread. Final score: 34-27.