Martin: Outside of the RB battle, three matchups to watch for in Stillwater

Breece Hall and Xavier Hutchinson celebrate after Hall’s 75-yard touchdown run Sept. 26.

Zach Martin

When No. 17 Iowa State and No. 6 Oklahoma State kickoff in the potential de-facto Big 12 regular season title game Saturday afternoon, all eyes will be on the backfield.

The Cyclones’ Breece Hall and the Cowboys’ Chuba Hubbard, two possible first-round picks when they both eventually declare for the NFL Draft, will get the attention on film and from the eyes of multiple scouts who will likely be in Stillwater.

Now, what kind of fun would it be if I bored you with strict analysis on the pair of running backs?

Answer: Not fun.

While whoever has the biggest game between Hall and Hubbard will have the inside track at the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, and yes, it is the most important battle to watch, there are a handful of others where the eyes need to be glued.

Here are three other matchups to watch for that will mean more to the game than whichever running back explodes for a big day.

Iowa State’s tight ends vs. Oklahoma State’s linebackers

This is what will decide the game.

There’s very little doubt in my mind that the trio of the Cyclones’ tight ends and the quartet of Cowboys’ linebackers are the two best position groups for the entire team.

Charlie Kolar, Dylan Soehner and Chase Allen have been used in a variety of ways this year that it’s almost reaching a point where all of them are becoming difficult to guard consistently.

After all, if any more TE-to-TE passes happen this year, we all might as well throw in the towel and claim Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell as the TE recruiting guru.

With that said, if there is one group in the Big 12 that can slow down the Iowa State tight ends, it’s Oklahoma State’s cast of athletic and physical linebackers.

Malcolm Rodriguez gets the headlines and attention since the senior is the catalyst of that group, but his three teammates are no scrubs. Devin Harper, Calvin Bundage and Amen Ogbongbemiga have registered a total of 44 tackles, six combined sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss.

Yeah, they’re that good. They’re also one of the most experienced groups, with all four having played college football for more than four years.

While I think putting one of these linebackers on either Kolar or Allen in the passing game is smart, while also having Oklahoma State’s all-world safety Kolby Harvell-Peel on the other, it’s in the blocking game where the game could go one direction.

Could some max protections involving two tight ends to allow Brock Purdy extra time in the pocket and to create more holes for Hall to bust through?

Campbell isn’t ruling that out.

“You’re talking about a physical defense that has the ability to create havoc in a lot of ways,” Campbell said. “That’s really impressive on the video tape.”

It’s a fascinating battle on paper. Let’s see if it’ll be that much better on the field.

Xavier Hutchinson vs. Rodarius Williams

Nobody has seen his role on offense expand more than Hutchinson.

Chemistry with Purdy has developed a lot more since the season opener, where the two just weren’t on the same page. Since that one blemish on Iowa State’s record, Xavier Hutchinson has snared 16 catches for 186 yards and one touchdown against Oklahoma.

He had a season-high nine catches against Texas Tech two weeks ago and is trending in the direction of becoming Purdy’s number one wide receiver option.

Now, with the increased attention, Hutchinson will face his most challenging cornerback yet.

Rodarius Williams has been shut down good through three games. He has five pass breakups — four of them coming against West Virginia — and has been one of the main reasons why the Cowboys have given up 180 passing yards per game and just two passing touchdowns.

Williams has held each opponents number one wideout — Tulsa’s Keylon Stokes, West Virginia’s Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Kansas’ Kwamie Lassiter II — to a combined 10 catches for just over 100 yards.

That’s the type of corner Hutchinson will likely get a first-hand look at on Saturday.

Purdy will likely have to spread the ball around just as he did in the previous two contests, possibly even more so this time around. Zeroing in on the JUCO transfer could mean Williams has a house call.

I’m a sucker for one-on-one matchups like this. My eyes will be all on this battle of two very talented players.

Oklahoma State’s red zone offense vs. Iowa State’s red zone defense

The Cowboys have a 100 percent success rate when they get inside their opponent’s 20-yard line. The Cyclones can’t seem to stop a cold when they are backed up.

Oklahoma State is 12-of-12 when that high-powered offense that has been on full display the last two games comes knocking on the door. It has reached pylon five times and kicked seven field goals.

Iowa State has allowed seven unanswered scores when TCU, Oklahoma and Texas Tech got into the red zone. Granted, five of those seven scores came during the shootout against the Sooners, but the point remains true that its red zone defense has been abysmal at best.

Campbell believes it will get turned around sooner rather than later.

“We’ve done a really good job of trying to hone in the margins,” Campbell said. “Those are mechanisms that good teams have the ability to do and grow in as the year goes on.”

If the game becomes high-scoring, that fits what the Cowboys want. If it becomes a battle of capitalizing on chances in the red zone, they have the game in their hands.

The Cyclones have to keep playing its aggressive style of defense outside of the 20-yard line to have a legitimate shot of pulling the upset.