Head to Head: What’s Iowa State football’s biggest concern with three games left?

Sports Editor Zane Douglas and Assistant Sports Editor Matt Belinson discuss what Iowa State football’s biggest concern is as the season winds down.

Matt Belinson and Zane Douglas

Iowa State football has a lot going right with three games left in its regular season schedule.

Sitting all alone in first place in the Big 12 with a 5-1 record, Iowa State has a chance to control its own destiny and attempt to win out and earn a shot at a Big 12 title. And there a lot of reasons why the Cyclones are in the position they’re in halfway through November.

The Cyclones have arguably the best running back in college football in sophomore Breece Hall, one of the top defenses in the Big 12 led by Mike Rose, Greg Eisworth and Jaquan Bailey and has some of the best tight ends in the country with potential NFL aspirations.

But, with success comes added scrutiny.

So as Iowa State sits in another bye week, a time for the team to reflect and evaluate their play and determine what needs to get better, Sports Editor Zane Douglas and assistant sports editor Matt Belinson decided to go “Head to Head” and discuss what should Iowa State’s biggest concern be as it tries to win-out and make the Big 12 Championship.

Belinson: Special teams

Having special teams issues is nothing new for Iowa State over the last handful of seasons, but during that time, Iowa State never found itself in a position like it does right now.

That’s what makes the problems on special teams not just concerning, but a chance to be season-ending for Iowa State.

Want a refresher on all of the special teams gaffs we have seen this season? Here is what Iowa State’s special teams have done, or rather let opponents do, through the first seven games:

1. Sept 12 Louisiana: (95 yard kickoff return for a touchdown and an 83 yard touchdown punt return)

2. Sept 26 TCU: (Missed PAT)

3. Oct 10 Texas Tech: (Blocked field goal returned for a touchdown)

4. Oct 24 Oklahoma State: (Missed two field goals)

5. Oct 31 Kansas: (100 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, missed extra point on second touchdown drive)

6. Nov 6 Baylor: (Muffed punt on first possession of the second half)

That is, shall we say, not great.

Iowa State is at a point right now where every game and every win helps its chances of playing in the Big 12 Championship, but if you’re Iowa State, how can you trust your special teams in a critical situation?

Imagine this: Iowa State is on the road at Texas in two weeks and is down by two points with 40 seconds left. Iowa State drives down the field but then stalls at the 30 yard line. Here comes Connor Assalley.

Do you have trust that Iowa State’s special teams can get the job done? I don’t know how you can tell me with a straight face the answer is yes.

Assalley has already missed three field goals this season, and his career long since the 2019 season is 42 yards. 

But I don’t want to just pile on Assalley, because it has been the entire special teams group making mistakes. Costly penalties, not being in assigned return lanes or missing blocks, the entire unit has been bad this season.

With games getting more intense down the stretch and teams having more to play for, things are going to be close. Iowa State better hope it’s not close enough for a kick return or missed field goal to hurt them in the end.

It’s one thing to give up a 100 yard kickoff return against Kansas, who you beat by 30 points, but against Texas, against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship?

That could very well be the end of Iowa State’s aspirations.

Douglas: Passing attack

A year ago, this answer would be absurd, blasphemous, you name it.

The prospect that Iowa State’s career leader in passing touchdowns could be the team’s weakness does sound insane, but to this point, junior quarterback Brock Purdy has not been very good.

Sophomore year Purdy was probably the best quarterback in Cyclone history, but with not a ton of help elsewhere, Purdy has lost his step a bit.

Knowing how well he has done in the past, this could be a hilariously bad statement by the end of the year, but Purdy right now is the biggest roadblock between the Cyclones and a Big 12 Championship.

Whether it’s under-throwing deep balls, troubles with accuracy or just shaky decision-making, Purdy has needed to step his game up in a few games this season.

Purdy’s stats don’t help his case either.

While last season, Purdy was throwing 2.1 touchdowns per game and only 0.69 interceptions per game, in the 2020 season, Purdy is averaging 1.4 passing touchdowns per game and 0.86 interceptions per game.

His completion percentage is down from 65.7 percent to 62.2 percent and his 306.3 passing yards per game is down to 211 passing yards per game.

Purdy has had his positive impacts reduced and has upped some of his negative attributes and its shown in the passing game. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies Purdy’s season than the game against Baylor.

Against Baylor, Purdy was intercepted three times in the first half alone, but part of the reason Iowa State still won was Purdy’s excellent second half play, which shouldn’t be ignored.

Purdy finished the day with just 164 yards passing and the junior heavily leaned on his running back for first-half production, but in the second half, Purdy threw for a trio of scores.

It’s for this exact reason that Purdy could also be the reason Iowa State wins the Big 12 Championship.

If he plays at all like he did in that second half against the Bears, that should be enough to give the Cyclones a chance against any team in the Big 12 — after all, Oklahoma State only beat the Cyclones by three points despite a poor performance from Purdy.

Iowa State right now is leading the Big 12 and there isn’t a team in the conference yet that looks like it can overpower Iowa State other than maybe Oklahoma State.

But if Purdy doesn’t improve his game, then it could spell the end for a successful Cyclone season.