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And in That Corner … The Iowa State Cyclones in the Camping World Bowl

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Notre Dame fans may be disappointed in a bowl opponent that finished tied for fifth in the Big 12, but Iowa State is well-regarded by most standards and should provide every bit the competition other bowl opponents would have. There is reason SP+ ranks the Cyclones No. 23 in the country.

To discuss some of the disparity between perception and reality as it pertains to Iowa State, let’s welcome Dylan Montz of The Ames Tribune

DF: I always try to start with the micro before getting to a bigger picture, and in Iowa State’s case, that means discussing Brock Purdy. The sophomore quarterback is not necessarily recognized nationally as much as he should be. Even in eight starts as a freshman he was impressive (2,250 yards,16 touchdowns, 66.4 completion percentage), and he has built on that this year: 313.3 yards per game, 27 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 66.3 completion percentage.

While I’m aware of his production, including eight more rushing scores, I cannot say I watched all that much of the Cyclones during the season. What does Purdy do that makes him so successful, aside from protect the ball?

DM: There are a couple things Purdy does particularly well. He’s accurate and he doesn’t get rattled. The ability Purdy has to stay poised is harder to quantify than accuracy, per se, but he’s had the ability to not shrink in moments for the majority of his career. Matt Campbell has said that even at 19 years old, Purdy can probably shed bad plays better than some of the coaches.

Accuracy is obviously another key trait for a good quarterback, and Purdy has a lot of weapons that can help. Four of his pass-catchers have at least 600 receiving yards, which takes the pressure off his shoulders, and he has a dynamic running back in true freshman Breece Hall that make his running opportunities even more potent.

Purdy certainly spreads the ball around. With those four 600-yard receivers this season, Iowa State has as many as Notre Dame has produced across the last four years. Nonetheless, the Cyclones offense has been a bit hit-or-miss this season, failing to break 21 in three games, three of their five losses. What were those teams (Iowa, Baylor, Kansas State) able to do to so adeptly slow down Purdy & Co.?

The shortcomings Iowa State experienced often in early stages of the season, and in the last game of the regular season, was its inability to continue drives just outside the red zone. The Cyclones are the least penalized team in the Big 12, but key false starts or an offensive pass interference on one occasion against Baylor negated favorable down-and-distances, resulting in either punts on the plus side of the field or turnovers on downs.

A newfound running game has been able to help Iowa State stay in an offensive rhythm for large stretches of the second half of the season, but if the offensive line struggles at the point of attack in particular, Purdy and Co. become much easier to contain.

Brock Purdy
Iowa State sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy has established himself as one of the country’s best passers in just two seasons, not to mention he also has a penchant for finding the end zone with his legs. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)

The strength of Iowa State’s defense comes on the ground, holding opponents to 3.84 yards per rush. The Irish won’t much care, though, hardly able to run the ball consistently at any point in the second half of the season. It is not fair to say the Cyclones’ are vulnerable to the pass, but they did rank only No. 69 in the country in passing efficiency defense. Where can Ian Book expect to find success against Iowa State’s secondary?

Where other teams have had success is attacking the space in the defense between the line and secondary. The linebackers aren’t a weak position, but the style of defense Iowa State runs leaves the middle of the field vulnerable. When the Cyclones bring the linebackers up to defend the run, it creates space behind them to get a quick pass off. If they do the drop-eight coverage look and rush just three, that same space is available.

The style of defense usually prevents big plays and makes offenses have to move down the field methodically, but if Book can be accurate, trust his protection and make correct reads, then it could be a good day for Notre Dame.

I suppose, for thoroughness’ sake, I should mention Notre Dame finished No. 5 in passing efficiency defense, setting up for a strength vs. strength scenario against Purdy.

Anyway, to the macro, I don’t know that anyone outright expected the Cyclones to win the Big 12 this season, but some did see them as a dark horse possibility. Instead, falling to 7-5 with four of the losses coming by 11 combined points has to feel like a missed opportunity, if not a downright disappointment. How have Matt Campbell and the rest of the program reacted to that kind of season?

The last loss, a 10-point setback at Kansas State, leaves the Wildcats with perhaps a more sour taste than any of the other ones. That might refocus them a bit coming into this game. Matt Campbell doesn’t react much different whether it’s after the upset of Oklahoma a couple years ago or the one-point loss to Iowa on a muffed punt in September. The players have followed suit.

There is plenty of what-ifs and disappointment that exists for the players and coaches — they’ve had a mirror season to Baylor in some ways except all the close games went the other way — but they all see the opportunity against Notre Dame as new life to the year and a chance to get a springboard into 2020.

With that in mind, some like to pitch the Camping World Bowl as “Iowa State’s Super Bowl,” even more so than the usual narrative bit for Notre Dame opponents. Is there any validity to that sentiment?

People have tried to frame this game that way, and there is certainly some truth to the excitement level for the players in playing a game against a team with the prestige of Notre Dame, but I don’t know if the players see it as more than what it is. It’s a bowl game against a good team with a lot of history. If Iowa State won, it would probably feel like validation to them of the team many thought they’d be entering the year.

RELATED READING: With perspective, Camping World Bowl a worthy destination for No. 15 Notre Dame

As of Christmas morning, the spread is 3.5. Rather than focus on that, let’s ask the question in the terms of the season — Did you join any confidence points bowl pools? If so, who did you pick in the Camping World Bowl, and how many confidence points (out of 40) did you put on that pick?

I’ve missed out on bowl confidence pools the last couple seasons as I’ve traveled, but I like Notre Dame in this one and would probably put it in my top-10. The Irish have an advantage on both lines of scrimmage, which will be huge in the style that both teams hope to play. That’s where Iowa State struggled mightily in its last game.