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Ask An Expert: Q&A With An Iowa State Cyclone

I'll be heading to Ames this evening, so I won't be around for tomorrow's game threads for the second week in a row (sorry). I've been to Ames so many times over the years, I feel it's appropriate to say goodbye in person. 

I know a good number of people who have chosen to get an education at Iowa State University - some of them current students. Outsiders would look at Ames and say "why the hell would anyone go to the middle of Iowa to attend college?", but the fact is that Ames is a pretty good college town. The tailgating is always fun, the Cyclone fans have always been pretty good natured (and willing to share), even though Nebraska has won the lion's share of the games there. 

It's hard to find anything out about Iowa State. Scanning our AP photo selection, I didn't find a single picture of Iowa State's win over Texas, which ought to tell you the level of respect they command. Once again, to get the real poop on the team, we turn to our SB Nation counterpart, Paul Conrad, of the Iowa State Cyclone site "Clone Chronicles". 

Paul Conrad: 

I think we can all agree that there are at least two different Nebraska teams. The team that showed up against Texas showed a number of weaknesses, conversely the team that showed up against Missouri last week appeared to do everything right. What do you see as the primary factor in which team will show up on any given Saturday?

Jon Johnston: 

This team will be asking questions about the Texas loss until the day they die.... which probably means I'll be doing the same. I'm still not sure how to explain what happened against Texas - why you guys could beat them on the road, and we couldn't beat them at home. Best explanation I can think of is that God took the day off and evil won. 

If there's been one thing consistent about this team it's been playing well on the road. Quarterback Taylor Martinez exploded on the ground at Washington (137 yds, 3 TDs) and in Manhattan against Kansas State (242 yds, 4 TDs), then exploded through the air against Oklahoma State (323 yds pass, 5 TDs). 

It doesn't take much to realize that the tough road mentality comes from Bo Pelini. Everyone has seen how worked up he can get during games (or during postgame pressers), so can you imagine how tough he is to play for - to deal with if you're dogging it at practice? You have to have a tough-as-nails mentality just to be on the team. 

Staying with the "up and down" theme, most people were down on Iowa State coming into the season, but with one more win and the Cyclones are bowl eligible. What's been the key to success for the ‘Clones - and what has you most excited about this team? 

Paul Conrad:

The key to the team has really been the coaching staff. I don't know how Coach Rhoads has managed to motivate the team the way he has, but they play beyond their talent for him. ISU has never been prestigious enough to get 4 and 5 star recruits, but somehow Coach Rhoads has gotten his players to play up to a level that can compete in the Big 12. 

The other key to success has really been the leaders amongst the players. Austen Arnaud isn't the best quarterback in the Big 12, but he manages to lead the team, even when he's on the sideline. Similarly, Alexander Robinson leads the running backs as a senior, both Shontrelle Johnson and Jeff Woody follow his lead and have excelled this year on the field.

I'm most excited to see a coach and coaching staff that genuinely likes being at Iowa State and can make the most of the resources we have. When Gene Chizik was hired, we all thought it was time for the Cyclones to turn the corner as a team. Cold hard reality set in and Chizik learned that it takes something more to coach when you don't have an over-abundance of talent. Enter Paul Rhoads, a native Iowan who's done more with less than Gene Chizik ever had. ISU has no "former glory" to regain, but we do look forward to a brighter future.

A lot of hay has been made about the hit on Gabbert last week, and the suspension the week before of a Nebraska player. Review of the photos and video of the Mizzou game makes it look like it wasn't malicious. What do you think the coaches and players should take away from this environment that has relentlessly turned against helmet-to-helmet hits?

Jon Johnston: 

Nebraska has been the unfortunate recipient of announcer Ed Cunningham getting on his high horse in back-to-back games in which the Huskers delivered some tremendous hits. Cunningham made the Gabbert hit a bigger issue than it was, and if he bothered to ever read a NCAA rule book, he'd know that "leading with the head" is specifically referring to the crown of the helmet, not the facemask or the front of the helmet. 

This is the case of the media making a story, rather than reporting one. The game isn't any more violent than it's ever been, in fact, it's less because of the emphasis on protecting players. 

I don't think the players or coaches can let any of this affect them. From an early age, you're taught to keep your head up when you tackle in order to avoid serious neck and head injuries. That hasn't changed. You're also taught that if you play half-speed you're going to get killed. Bottom line - you can't change what you've been doing since you started playing football because some announcers shove their head up their ass and start harping on it. 

This isn't the NFL, where the game has become a game of attrition. 

The game always comes down to the strength of the offensive and defensive lines. Iowa State had one of the best offensive lines last season, but lost Scott Haughton before the season began. What is the state of the Cyclone lines? Are they playing well, and do they have the depth to go four quarters? 

Paul Conrad:

Even without Scott Haughton, the Offensive line has been a strength for the Cyclones this year. Center Ben Lamaak is the leader of the group and Iowa State's first half struggles against Kansas had a lot to do with the fact that he was out with an injury last week. Alex Alvarez slid over to center and Sean Smith took his place. Even with a poor first half performance, they came out of the locker room at halftime and came together as a unit. With the exception of the Running backs, the Offensive line has been the strongest unit on the team. Ben Lamaak is expected to play Saturday against the Huskers, so we're hoping for good things from the running game.

The defensive line at the beginning of the season was a huge question mark, along with the Linebacker corps. The linebackers, in the form of AJ Klien and Jake Knott (who are #1 and #2 in tackles in the Big 12), proved themselves in the first few games. Not so the Defensive line. Very few tackles were being made at the line of scrimmage and virtually no pressure was being put on the quarterbacks. Coach Rhoads and Coach Burnham saw all this and decided that they needed to make a change. They did so before the Texas game, inserting Jacob Lattimer as a starter. The result was a complete turn around in performance. In his first week as a starter, Jake Lattimer was the Big 12 Defensive player of the week. The D-line has made tackles, harassed the quarterback and tackled for loss extremely well against Kansas and Texas. I look for them to play a big part in Saturday's game.

From the statistics, we know that Nebraska's secondary is arguably the best secondary in the country. They consistently shut down the passing game. At the same time, Nebraska's run defense statistics are mediocre at best. What has been the issue with run defense and what kind of impact do you see it having on Saturday?

Jon J: 

The biggest issue with run defense was losing two projected starters at linebacker before the season began. Sean Fisher went out for the season, while Will Compton injured his foot, and didn't return until the Huskers played 

Lavonte David came in as a JUCO transfer and wound up starting. He's played extremely well, but in having to learn the defense on the fly, has made his share of mistakes. The Blackshirts play an extra defensive back most of the time, but this season it may have been more often than they'd have liked. 

The "yeah, but" department would point out that the Huskers have played against some pretty decent running backs. Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey made be the best back on a cruddy team, while Kansas State's Daniel Thomas and Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter are amongst the top backs in the nation. 

Oklahoma State gave the Husker defense fits because of the combination of Hunter and deep threat Justin Blackmon, so Hunter ended up with over 200 yards. Kansas State did not have a playmaker comparable to Blackmon (who does?), and Daniel Thomas ended up with only 63 yards on 22 carries. 

How will it affect this week's game? I can see it being similar to the Kansas State game. Iowa State is going to grit it out on offense - I don't think you have the playmakers who are capable of breaking off on 80-yard (or 30-yard) plays especially since Pelini's defense is specifically geared to stop the explosive play. 

The key will be sticking with a game plan that eats clock, picks up first downs, and then hope that your defense can contain Nebraska's offense.

Which leads me to the question - how the heck you going to contain Nebraska's offense? 

Paul Conrad:

I wish I had a solid answer for that. My guess is that Wally Burnham has been watching endless reruns of the Texas/Nebraska game and trying to find ways to apply those lessons learned. At the same time they're watching the tapes where Taylor Martinez shredded the defenses of Kansas State and your non-conference opponents. 

None of that, however, talks about what will happen on the field. I hope (pray, wish, whatever) that the ISU defensive line we've seen in the last few weeks is legitimate. If they are, then I think the Nebraska Offensive line will not be quite as dominant as they have demonstrated they can be in the past. Bottom line, whoever wins at the line of scrimmage will control the game. Fortunately for the Cyclones (at least on Offense) that isn't a position where Nebraska is overwhelmingly more talented than Iowa State.

Other than that, I'm confident in the Secondary's ability to prevent big plays in the pitch and catch game, and I'm confident in the linebackers stopping the big plays on the ground. Which in my mind points to a game that's ground out relentlessly with three and four yard gains.

Against Texas, the Husker Defense was on the field a lot, and noticeably slowed down by the end of the game. Conversely, the Blackshirts held Mizzou's offensive drives to a minimum. How will Nebraska react to prolonged periods on the field on Offense and Defense?

Jon J: 

Well, I can tell you how Husker fans will react to prolonged drives and a low-scoring game. It'll start with a low mumble, then slowly develop into homicidal rage, hell-bent on finding reasons as to why Dan Beebe and the Big 12 conference wants us to lose another game. Bastards! 

As for the team, this year's team has more depth than Nebraska has seen in a long, long time. You pointed out that Mizzouri's drives were held to a minimum, but there were several backups who had key contributions in the game. Jermarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick started at left tackle in place of injured Jeremiah Sirles. Kevin Thomsen, normally a third-string defensive end, was credited with a sack. Ciante Evans replaced starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard early in the game and played extremely well. 

Nebraska kept control of the ball for 13:49 in the fourth quarter against Missouri, throwing the ball only twice while feeding the Tigers a steady diet of Roy Helu. 

Bottom line - I'm not worried about our ability to sustain a close, four-quarter game of football. 

One more question before a prediction. Husker fans know about running back Alexander Robinson. Who else will be making plays on the offense for the Cyclones? 

Paul Conrad:

It's funny, because the answer to that question last year was: Nobody. Yet, it was the nobodies that played at Nebraska. It really just boggles the mind when you sit down and think about it. This year it's a little different. The Huskers should get used to seeing two more names on Saturday: Shontrelle Johnson and Colin Franklin.

Shontrelle Johnson is a true freshman and has taken the field in a storm so far this year. On the depth chart he's third, behind Robinson and Jeff Woody, but he's shown flashes of absolute brilliance on the field. Against Texas Tech, he ran for a 61 yard gain. Against Kansas he broke for 33 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Both times, but especially in his run versus Kansas, he's had some beautiful moves. You can see his moves here:

Colin Franklin is our beast of a Tight End. He run blocks, he blocks for wide receivers, and he is the go to guy on third down, with an uncanny ability to put himself just on the other side of the chains. He's the team's leading receiver with 37 receptions for 356 yards and 2 TD's. 

So we've broken down both teams, who do you see winning on Saturday?

Jon J: 

I see Nebraska coming into Ames pissed off that they lost the game last year the way they did. They won't have Texas in their head this time, and they have an offense that can score a lot of points very quickly. 

I do believe this will end up much like the Kansas State game. I keep thinking we're going to blow you guys out, but historically the Cyclones have always played the game closer than expected in Ames. 

I'll pick Brandon Kinnie as the star this week, going over 100 yards receiving, with two TDs. Huskers win the turnover battle this time, and the game, as the ghost of Marvelous Marvin Seiler's greatness forever vacates the stadium. 

Nebraska 35, Iowa State 17


Paul C:

On paper the Cyclones should get blown out, but I'm coming to the realization that what is says on paper doesn't really matter on any given Saturday. College Football is full of upsets that didn't happen on paper. 

I see the ISU running game getting traction and Nebraska committing 4 turnovers to shoot themselves in the foot. I'm going to say that Shontrelle Johnson and Alexander Robinson BOTH have over 100 yards in a game that see's ISU winning the time of position battle by leaps and bounds.

Iowa State 28, Nebraska 24