IOWA CITY, Iowa – The big game in our state is always preceded by the big debate between Iowa fans about whether to treat the Iowa State football team as a legitimate threat.
There are some who still just assume victory over the Cyclones because so often the circumstances heading into the game scream Hawkeyes by a large margin.
Like this season for example.
Iowa is clearly the better team on paper. You name it and the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes have the advantage at almost every position, but especially at quarterback, offensive line, the secondary and linebacker, where Josey Jewell is set to return after being disqualified from this past Saturday’s season opener against Miami of Ohio for targeting not even three minutes into the first quarter of Iowa’s 45-21 victory at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa’s defense struggled at times without its all-Big Ten linebacker leading the way, allowing 424 yards against the RedHawks this past Saturday. But the Hawkeyes still forced three fumbles and recorded three sacks, in addition to rushing for 212 yards on just 29 carries.
Iowa State, on the other hand, couldn’t run against Northern Iowa in their season opener on Saturday, and that ultimately ruined Matt Campbell’s much-anticipated coaching debut as the Cyclones lost 25-20 in Ames.
So it’s easy to assume that if Iowa State can’t run against FCS member Northern Iowa, the same thing will happen against Iowa this coming Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
The problem is this rivalry has a history of proving assumptions wrong. Certainties turn into uncertainties after kickoff.
Iowa is a 16-point favorite to win on Saturday, but the Hawkeyes also were favored by at least 13 points in 2007 and 2014, but lost both games to the Cyclones.
Kirk Ferentz has distinguished himself as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the Iowa program, four times being named Big Ten Coach of the Year. Ferentz also has led Iowa to two Big Ten titles, to 13 bowl games in 17 seasons and to five double-digit win seasons.
Ferentz is flirting with legendary status, but also just 8-9 against Iowa State. You can attribute Ferentz’s first two losses to Iowa State in 1999 and 2000 to Iowa being in a rebuilding stage, and his third and fourth losses in 2001 and 2002 to the power of Seneca Wallace, who caused Iowa fits as Iowa State’s starting quarterback.
But the other five losses aren’t as easy to explain.
I remember thinking there is no way Iowa could lose at Iowa State in 2005, not with Drew Tate playing quarterback and with Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge playing linebacker.
Oddly enough, the game wasn’t even competitive as Iowa State rolled to a 23-3 victory in Ames.
It certainly didn’t help that Tate left the game with an injury in the first half and didn’t return. But the offense had performed woefully before Tate was injured on a play in which tried to make a tackle after throwing an interception.
Iowa was the better team on paper in 2014, and yet the Cyclones still prevailed 20-17 at Kinnick Stadium. And though it’s true that Iowa was a huge disappointment in 2014, finishing just 7-6 and losing all four trophy games after winning eight games the previous season, Iowa State only won two games in 2014.
The weird thing about this rivalry is sometimes it doesn’t matter how bad Iowa State proves to be, it still seems to have a three-hour, out-of-body experience against the Hawkeyes in which the impossible suddenly becomes possible.
Hawkeye fans hate to be reminded that Iowa State has a 9-8 record in the rivalry dating back to the 1998 season. Some try to make sense of it by believing that Iowa State considers the Iowa game to be its Super Bowl, while the Hawkeyes have bigger fish to fry.
Iowa State’s one-game transformation from bad to competitive doesn’t always happen in this rivalry, evidenced by Iowa winning three consecutive games from 2008-10 by a combined score of 85-17. But it happens enough to where it shouldn’t be a shock anymore.
Some try to explain it by saying Iowa State has often had the emotional edge because two of its head coaches during the last two decades – Dan McCarney and Paul Rhoads – had local connections to the Iowa program in the case of McCarney and to the state in the case of Rhoads..
McCarney grew up in Iowa City, played football at Iowa and then coached at his alma mater from 1977 to 1989. He then left to join former Hawkeye assistant Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin as defensive coordinator before becoming the head coach at Iowa State, where he had a 6-6 record against Iowa.
Rhoads grew up in Ankeny, so he was raised around the rivalry.
The emotional edge theory would make sense, but then how do you explain Gene Chizik?
He coached at Iowa State for just two seasons in 2007 and 2008, but left with a 1-1 record, winning in 2007 in Ames. Chizik had no connection to the state of Iowa and bolted from Ames almost as soon as Auburn offered him the head coaching job.
But he stayed long enough to beat Iowa, his 2007 team winning 15-13 despite being a two-touchdown underdog.
With all that being said, I still have Iowa winning on Saturday by about 10 points, but wouldn’t be shocked if the Cyclones pulled off another head scratcher. Surprised, but not shocked because you can only watch the improbable happen so many times before accepting it as a possibility.
Iowa State’s offensive line is depleted by injuries and mediocre on paper, even at full strength, whereas Iowa’s offensive line is healthy and experienced.
Iowa has all pieces needed for a potent rushing attack, not the least of which is a dynamic quarterback to keep the defense preoccupied.
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard was healthy when he faced the Cyclones last season, and it showed as he passed for 215 yards and rushed for 77 yards.
The game still was tied, though, late in the fourth quarter before Iowa scored two touchdowns to secure a 31-17 victory in Ames.
And that was one of the greatest teams in the history of the Iowa program, a team that finished 12-0 during the 2015 regular season, struggling to defeat the lowly Cyclones.
Iowa dominated the Cyclones on the ground last season, rushing for 260 yards, while Iowa State was held to just 63 yards.
And yet, the game still wasn’t decided until the final minutes.
Expecting victory over Iowa State is one thing. Assuming it is another.
It’s just asking for trouble about half of the time.