Iowa State is 1-0 to start the 2021 season. It wasn’t necessarily a pretty win, but it was a win nonetheless.
In a 16-10 victory over Northern Iowa in the season-opener, Iowa State left some points on the board, but had strong performances in the kicking game and had strong linebacker play despite an injury to a starter in the second half.
Cyclones fail to score multiple touchdowns
Out of the 10 drives that the Iowa State offense had, six of them either ended in Northern Iowa territory or started there.
Despite this, Iowa State scored just one touchdown, on a two-yard run from running back Breece Hall in the second quarter.
In the postgame press conference, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said some fluky things didn’t go the team's way and penalties hurt them as well to lead to the disjointed drives.
“I thought there were times when you're catching a really good rhythm, then some fluky thing, right? Like the first drive in the game,” Campbell said.
The play Campbell is referring to was Iowa State’s second offensive play of the game, when quarterback Brock Purdy threw a pass to wide receiver Joe Scates which was caught for a brief moment, but squirted out and went eight yards in the other direction, before Iowa State recovered it and had a third and long.
“This is me, like, ‘was that an incomplete pass? Was it not?’ I should have probably challenged it at the time,” Campbell said.
Another instance that Campbell brought up was the first drive of the second half, when wide receiver Jaylin Noel caught a short pass on a third and two, that popped out of his hands and out of bounds on the Northern Iowa sideline.
“Then you got the third and two, you get the first down, then the ball comes out,” Campbell said. “The ball comes out, it goes backwards and you don't get the first down.”
Both of those drives resulted in Iowa State punting from right around midfield.
Late in the fourth quarter, Iowa State had a chance to ice the game, up three with a little over six minutes left and the ball in the red zone. After having first and goal and being eight yards away from the end zone, Iowa State failed to punch it in and settled for a 21-yard field goal.
A reason the offense might’ve struggled to put up touchdowns is because Breece Hall was held to just 69 rushing yards on 23 carries. Also, the Cyclones were without veteran wide receiver Sean Shaw Jr. and two-time All-Big 12 Tight End Charlie Kolar.
“We felt like he [Charlie] was probably really close to playing today, he tweaked his ankle a couple weeks ago,” Campbell said. “He’s been really relentless in trying to be able to play, I think he was probably really close to being able to play.”
Shaw may be a little further away from playing, according to Campbell.
“Shawn is probably a couple of weeks away,” Campbell said. "I think he's probably closer than not, I would say, but still probably not ready to go next week, but I would say maybe after that we can get him a little bit closer. Shawn's done a great job and in terms of kind of getting himself back to rock and roll.”
While Iowa State struggled scoring touchdowns, it did not struggle converting on field goal opportunities.
One of the facets of the game on Saturday that Iowa State should be satisfied with is the special teams. To be specific, Iowa State found consistency from its senior kickers Connor Assalley and Andrew Mevis.
Assalley got the kicking game going with a 35-yard field goal at the end of the first quarter, while Mevis made a 40-yard boot to end the first half and put Iowa State up 13-10 at halftime. Assalley ended the scoring for the game with a successful chip shot field goal from 21 yards out to put Iowa State up 16-10.
Another part of kicking that went Iowa State’s way were kickoffs.
Mevis had the kickoff duties and kicked three touchbacks on four kickoffs, with the lone kickoff return being the opening kickoff that was only returned to the 20 yard line.
“I just think he [Mevis] gives us a chance to have a real weapon,” Campbell said. "Andrew, is a young man that's got really high end talent, you have to remember hasn't played in a football game in over a year and a half. So we're still working through some of those things a little bit for him, but in general, he’s a really huge lift for our football team.”
On the punting side of things, Iowa State senior Corey Dunn punted six times, four of which pinned Northern Iowa inside its own 20 yard line.
Linebackers start strong
Following Saturday’s win, one of the immediate talking points was how well the defense played, specifically in the second half. One group in particular that shined was the linebackers.
The Cyclones' three starting linebackers, seniors Mike Rose, O’Rien Vance and Jake Hummel, all had at least five tackles.
Rose and Hummel each had 11 total tackles, nine solo by Hummel and five solo by Rose, the top two totals by a Cyclone on Saturday. Out of the 22 combined tackles they had, 15 of them came in the second half.
In fact, the entire defense was better in the second half than it was in the first half, holding Northern Iowa scoreless and to just 142 yards (113 through the air and 29 on the ground).
While Northern Iowa did have more yards in the second half than it did in the first, it was able to score all 10 of its points in the first half.
“There's the inside zone they were running, it was kind of hitting off frontside tackle, but we were able to figure that out,” Hummel said.
Hummel said the defense was able to keep Panther quarterback Will McElvain in the pocket better in the second half and “locked things down” better as well.
“I think we just kept them in the pocket better, when he gets outside the tackles, that's when he can kind of make plays and that's when kind of guys get loose and defensive players lose their man,” Hummel said.
McElvain finished Saturday’s game with seven rushes, five of which were either designed rushes or a scramble which resulted in 16 yards, while the other two he was sacked for negative 21 yards combined.
Vance had five tackles and a sack in the game but had to depart the field with an injury in the second half.
“I think he'll be okay. You know, it was a little bit of a hamstring thing. I don't think it's one of those things that I'm globally concerned about,” Campbell said.
In relief for Vance was junior Gerry Vaughn, who finished the game with one tackle.