Surging Iowa State must be wary of West Virginia
The week-to-week grind of the Big 12 season has featured four straight wins for surging 15th-ranked Iowa State, including two in the past month against teams ranked in the AP top 5.
But the red-hot Cyclones can't afford to let their recent successes mar their preparation for their latest challenge, a road test Saturday against West Virginia at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va.
Iowa State's turnaround and the job done by second-year coach Matt Campbell is one of the feel-good stories in college football this season.
The Cyclones (6-2, 4-1 Big 12) won just 11 games over the previous four seasons. Last year, Iowa State was 3-9 in Campbell's first season and started 2-2. But since a 17-7 loss to Texas to open the Big 12 campaign, Iowa State has beaten then-No. 3 Oklahoma, steamrolled Kansas 45-0 and Texas Tech 31-13 and upset TCU 14-7 last week.
"The success is something we really measure at the end of the season," Campbell said. "What's been rewarding is to watch how our kids have worked on details to get better week in and week out. It's been rewarding to watch our team grow as the season has gone on."
Campbell said the pattern of success was built in the preseason, when his team worked away from the limelight when nobody was watching.
"January and February and March and April and May -- that's where our team earned its confidence in its ability," Campbell said. "The good thing about us is we haven't changed our approach in the year-and-a-half here. We don't worry about anything but what goes on between our walls."
Iowa State has won every game since quarterback Kyle Kempt took charge. Kempt walked-on to the team after seeing no action at Oregon State, where he was on scholarship for two years, or Hutchinson (Kansas) Junior College.
As good as the Cyclones have been over the past month, they can't walk into Morgantown with anything less than their A game. All three of the Mountaineers' losses this season are to ranked teams.
There wasn't a whole lot to like about the way then-No. 23 West Virginia got manhandled at home in losing to No. 11 Oklahoma State 50-39 last week. The Mountaineers' overall lack of physicality and weak play in the trenches has coach Dana Holgorsen searching for answers and a quick reversal.
With the loss to Oklahoma State, West Virginia dropped to 5-3 overall, 3-2 in Big 12 play and out of the polls. It wasn't losing to the Cowboys that has Holgorsen scratching his head; it's the way the loss came about that has him perplexed.
"More than anything, going into that game, I knew Oklahoma State was a physical football team -- they have been for quite some time," Holgorsen said. "I thought we'd gotten to the point where we were the same kind of team. We have been over the last several years. Just weren't on Saturday. They were more physical than us across the board."
Despite having the Big 12's top returning rusher, Justin Crawford, West Virginia hasn't been able to consistently run the football. Eight games into the season, the Mountaineers rank 69th nationally, averaging just 161 yards per game on the ground.
It's perhaps more surprising that the defense has struggled. West Virginia is allowing more than 460 yards a game, and that's with the likes of Delaware State, East Carolina and Kansas accounting for three of its five wins. It's the first time since 2013 that the Mountaineers are allowing more than 425 yards per game.
While Iowa State has had success against ranked opponents, West Virginia has struggled. Holgorsen's teams won four of their first five game against ranked foes, but just three of the next 20. They've fallen in 10 of the last 11 opportunities, with this season's win against Texas Tech the lone outlier.
If the Mountaineers can regain their edge, they can play with anyone in the conference.
Iowa State and West Virginia will meet for the sixth time this Saturday with the Mountaineers holding the series lead at 4-1.
The series is tied at 1-1 in games played in Morgantown. Iowa State's lone victory at WVU was a 52-44, triple overtime win in 2013 when the Cyclones battled back from a 31-7 deficit to record its largest comeback victory (24 points) in school history.
West Virginia won last year's meeting in Ames 49-19. Iowa State had 561 yards of total offense, but did not score an offensive TD.