In a vacuum, there was nothing wrong with last Saturday’s performance against TCU. We played hard and gave ourselves a chance against the #7 team in the country, and I think most would admit that’s more than they expected heading into the stadium.
The conflict comes when you zoom out a bit, and the story becomes our Mountaineers once again giving themselves a chance to win a big game, and once again failing to make the plays needed to get a win across the finish line. “Almost” has become the theme of the Neal Brown era, and it feels like the ceiling of this year’s squad is to almost but not quite beat the better teams in a wide open Big 12 conference. It’s not a fun place to be as a fan, and it’s not where I thought we’d be as a program coming into the 2022 football season.
Date: November 5th, 2022
Kickoff: 3:30PM EST
Where: Jack Trice Stadium - Ames, Iowa
Tickets: General Public
Online Streaming: ESPN app with a valid cable subscription
Radio: Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG (Radio Affiliates) | SiriusXM Channel 200 | WVU Gameday App (Apple | Android)
Radio Announcers: Tony Caridi (PBP), Dwight Wallace (analyst), and Jed Drenning (sideline)
Reminder: It is against site policy to post links to illegal streams in the comments.
Spread: WVU +7.5 on FanDuel (-120)
ML: WVU +205, Iowa State -280
Over/Under: 49.5 over -114/under -106
Never a great thing to be touchdown dawgs in a game featuring the two worst teams in the conference.
Clear - 52 degrees at kickoff - Wind 14 mph
Cold and windy are the plains of Iowa. At least there’s no rain in the forecast.
Where are they from? Ames, IA. Never been, but I gather that they drink as much beer as we do.
All-time Series: 6-4. A series of runs. We took four in a row from 2014-2017 before Iowa State won from 2018-2020. Perhaps last year was the start of a new streak for the good guys?
The Last Time We Played: West Virginia 38-31 Iowa State. Last year’s contest in Morgantown broke a 3-game losing streak to the ‘Clones and is right there with this year’s Baylor game in the conversation for high-water mark of the Neal Brown era. Those are probably the only two times in the last 3+ years that we beat a team we shouldn’t have.
Head coach: Matt Campbell (7th season, 45-39). Rumblings across the Twitter-verse that Campbell should’ve cashed in his chips and jumped to a bigger job while he was ahead, but as a Mountaineer fan I can appreciate that the year they're having is part of the natural cycle for most programs.
2022 record: 3-5 and right there with us in the Big 12 basement after five straight conference losses. The one difference is that Iowa State is either too well coached or too prideful to get blown off the field like we have twice already this year.
KEYS TO THE GAME
WHEN IOWA STATE HAS THE BALL - WHERE'S HUTCH?
117 - Targets for Iowa State wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson through 8 games this year. For context, that’s 9 more than the dude who ranks 2nd and 33 more than the guy who ranks 10th. The dude is an absolutely elite possession target, but a usage rate like that should simplify things for our defense, right?
326 - Pass attempts for the Clones this year in just 591 offensive snaps. They throw the ball at a higher rate (57%) than anybody else in the league, up to and including Texas Tech.
7.1 - ADOT for Hunter Dekkers, which ranks 83rd of the 91 FBS quarterbacks with 200+ drop backs.
10 - Interceptions thrown by Dekkers, 3rd most nationally among the same subset of quarterbacks.
86 - Rushing yards per game for Iowa State against FBS opponents this year, good for 122nd nationally. Their 2.9 yards per carry ranks one spot higher. This is not an offense that has hurt anybody on the ground.
Let’s call a spade a spade - Iowa State objectively has the worst offense in the Big 12. They have a below-average dual threat quarterback who can’t really push the ball down the field but throws interceptions anyways, running backs who can’t really run away from or run over people, and an offensive line that can neither open running lanes or slow down pass rushers. The one thing that makes them dangerous is throwing the ball to Xavier Hutchinson, and as I mentioned above, they do it a lot. 1 of every 3 pass plays and 1 of every 5 offensive snaps overall features intended touches for Hutchinson, and he’s as good as there is in the conference at making the most of those opportunities.
The key for us defensively is obviously tied to stopping him, but questions remain about how we approach the problem. Do we throw multiple defenders at him and try to force his teammates to beat us, or do we single cover him and try to shut down the supporting cast based on the assumption that he's probably going to get his either way? My preference would be to start with the latter, with Charles Woods shadowing him across the formation, but we can't hesitate to give Woods help if he needs it. However, if Woods can get hands on Hutchinson and add variance to how much time it takes him to get to his spots, it should create some uncertainty in a passing game that can struggle when the ball sticks in the quarterback's hands.
WHEN WE HAVE THE BALL - STAY PATIENT, DON’T GET GREEDY
39 - Explosive plays allowed by Iowa State in 429 snaps against FBS opponents this year. That’s comfortably the best number in the Big 12 and is somewhere in the top 15 or so nationally.
79 - Havoc plays generated by the Clones against FBS opponents. That’s 12 sacks, 39 TFLs, 9 forced fumbles, and 19 passes defended. All of those numbers are in the bottom half of the Big 12, and after dividing by 429 snaps, the resulting havoc rate is an unremarkable 18.4%.
The numbers above paint an accurate and familiar picture of the Iowa State defensive profile. These guys have been the premier bend-but-don’t-break unit in the conference for pretty much the entire Matt Campbell era, and this year they’re one of the very best at it in the country. They’re well coached, but even more importantly, they simply have good players at all three levels of the field.
There will be several familiar faces defensively, most notably edge Will McDonald and corner TJ Tampa, but the most important player on the defense has arguably been transfer Colby Reeder, who we highlighted in the West By Pod deep dive series over the summer. Reeder has stepped in at their middle linebacker spot and hasn't missed a beat, performing well enough that you could forget that they lost a pair of All-Conference players at the position during the offseason.
As for how we should attack them, I think this is a week where we simply have to stay patient. The Clones don't allow many explosive plays, but they will generally give us all the time we want to dink and dunk our way around the field. If we can put our most efficient foot forward, this is something that should play into our hands, but for that to happen we need JT to shake off whatever has been going on with his accuracy the last two or three weeks.
STANDING X-FACTOR - MARGINS
This is going to be the standing X-factor for these previews going forward. Basically, we have less margin for error than any team in the Big 12 besides Iowa State. Winning the field position and turnover battles, avoiding ill-timed drops and penalties, getting off the field on third down, turning quality possessions into touchdowns - all of those things were important before and are absolutely critical now. Our backs are against the wall here, gang. There is no more room for error.
NEW X-FACTOR - PLAY TO OUR STRENGTHS
This one is mostly me being at my wits end and going out of my way to be a jackass about the things that our coaching staff says and does, but ol' Sun Tzu Brown dropped a real gem in his Tuesday press conference: "sometimes you should play to your strengths." I guess that means we should be trying to do things our players are good at? It seems an odd revelation to stumble into after three years and eight games, because here I was sat this whole time thinking that's basically his entire job description. Weird. Agreed, Neal, let's play to our strengths.
HOW CONCERNED SHOULD WE BE?
6/10. Iowa State the team doesn’t necessarily scare me, but Ames is a weird place to play and the implications of losing a game like this are unsettling.
I honestly can't remember being less excited about a November football game. Exhibit A: I forgot about the preview until today. It's probably going to be a shit game between two shit teams, and I don't expect one single person who's not a member of either fanbase to watch one second of it.
As for me, I can't help but feel that it's a game we should win, but I'm not sure that there's any result that moves the Climb-O-Meter in an overwhelmingly positive direction. Either we beat the worst team in the conference, or we lose and are ourselves the worst team in the conference, and that latter outcome arguably should and likely does signal the beginning of the end of the Neal Brown era in Morgantown. Let's go Mountaineers, I guess.