The Alamo Bowl contest between Iowa State and Washington State has all of the ingredients to be one of the best matchups of the postseason, as an interesting contrast in styles is on tap when these two teams meet on Friday night in San Antonio. The Cougars are one of the nation’s best on offense, but coach Mike Leach’s team has a tough matchup against the Cyclones’ rugged defense.
Iowa State is a program on the rise under coach Matt Campbell. After a 3-9 mark in his first season in Ames, the Cyclones finished 8-5 in 2017 and sit at 8-4 entering Friday’s showdown against Washington State. And with a good chunk of this team’s core returning next fall, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Iowa State ranked inside of the preseason top 25 for 2019. The Cyclones started 1-3 in 2018, but all three defeats – Iowa, Oklahoma and TCU – came by 10 points or less. Campbell’s team leaned on its defense, along with the emergence of quarterback Brock Purdy, to win seven out of its next eight games. Iowa State knocked off West Virginia (30-14), Kansas State (42-38) and Oklahoma State (48-42) in that stretch to propel the program to back-to-back winning records in Big 12 play.
Mike Leach started his Washington State tenure with three consecutive losing records, but the program has won at least eight games in each of the last four years. The Cougars are 26-10 in Pac-12 play in that span and finished with double-digit victories (10) this season. The 10-win season came as a surprise, as Leach’s team entered the year with uncertainty at quarterback and was picked to finish outside of the top three in the Pac-12 North. However, East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, helping Washington State pick up wins against Oregon, Stanford, Utah and California en route to a 7-2 mark in league play. The Cougars fell short of a North title after a loss to Washington in the Apple Cup, but there’s no denying this program has made considerable progress under Leach’s watch.
This is the first meeting on the gridiron between Washington State and Iowa State. The Cyclones have no previous trips to the Alamo Bowl, while the Cougars played in this game in 1994.
Alamo Bowl: Washington State (10-2) vs. Iowa State (8-4)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Washington State Stop the Run?
Washington State’s run defense wasn’t bad in 2018. The Cougars allowed only 136.6 rushing yards a game and limited teams to 4.0 yards a carry. However, this group was gashed by Washington for 258 yards on 44 attempts in the Apple Cup. Running back Myles Gaskin posted 170 of the 258 yards for the Huskies, including an 80-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Washington State’s defense has allowed only three teams – Washington, Oregon State and Utah – to eclipse more than 200 rushing yards this fall. Outside of that, this unit did not allow a team to record more than 148 yards on the ground. Coach Tracy Claeys replaced Alex Grinch as the team’s coordinator this offseason and maintained Washington State’s place near the top of the Pac-12 in defense. The Cougars held opponents to just 23.1 points a game and 5.4 yards per play. This unit also tied for first in the Pac-12 by generating 35 sacks and ranked fourth in pass efficiency defense.
Was this performance against Washington in bad weather conditions a sign of a concern or just a one-game hiccup? Iowa State is certainly going to test this unit, as Campbell’s offense boasts one of the top running backs in the nation in David Montgomery. The junior missed one contest in 2018 but has still rushed for 1,092 yards and 12 scores. Montgomery excels at breaking tackles and maintaining balance one he’s hit and also has 18 receptions this year.
Iowa State’s offensive line will have a size edge in the battle up front. The Cyclones have four players checking in over 292 pounds, while each defender Washington State’s three-man front weighs 280 or less.
Can Montgomery and Iowa State’s ground game get on track and chew up large chunks of the clock to keep Washington State’s offense on the sideline? Or will Cougars put the clamps on Montgomery and keep the Cyclones in third-and-long all game?
2. Washington State’s Offense Against Iowa State’s Defense
As expected with a Mike Leach-coached offense, Washington State’s strength on this side of the ball is its passing game. Minshew has been the perfect catalyst for Leach’s offense, as the senior threw for 4,480 yards and 36 touchdowns to nine interceptions this season. He also connected on 70.6 percent of his throws and landed five completions of 50 or more yards.
Minshew has a variety of options to choose from at receiver, but running back James Williams paces the team with 76 receptions. Dezmon Patmon (55), Tay Martin (65), Easop Winston (48) and Jamire Calvin (37) will all see plenty of targets on Friday night. While the Cougars don’t run it a ton (22 attempts a contest), Williams (4.6 ypc) posted 549 yards and 12 scores on 119 carries. Freshman Max Borghi rushed for 353 yards and seven touchdowns this fall.
While Minshew and the skill players get most of the attention, Washington State’s line is a big part of the success for this offense. The Cougars allowed only 11 sacks in the regular season and helped the offense rank third in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions.
It’s no secret Washington State’s offense is one of the best in college football, but the Iowa State defense is equipped to slow down Leach’s attack. Considering the Cyclones’ Big 12 opponents, an Air Raid passing game is nothing new for this defense. Additionally, Iowa State ranked first in the Big 12 in scoring defense (22.5 ppg), held opponents to 5.1 yards per play and finished third in pass efficiency defense in the conference. The Cyclones excelled at getting a pass rush (31 sacks), but this unit is versatile and has the pieces to combat the talent Washington State has with its receiving corps. Cornerback Brian Peavy was an Athlon Sports’ 2018 All-American after a terrific senior year, while safety Greg Eisworth (84 tackles) led the team in tackles.
Also of note for this matchup: Iowa State allowed only eight plays of 40 yards or more and ranked second in the Big 12 in red zone defense.
3. Iowa State QB Brock Purdy
Kyle Kempt opened 2018 as Iowa State’s No. 1 quarterback, but an injury to the senior opened the door for a change under center. Zeb Noland started five games after Kempt’s injury, but Purdy took over during the Oklahoma State contest and never surrendered the starting job. The true freshman completed 66.3 percent of his passes and threw for 1,935 yards and 16 touchdowns to five picks over the final eight contests. He also rushed for 262 yards and three scores on just 90 carries.
Purdy’s favorite target has been Hakeem Butler, as the junior finished the regular season with 51 catches for 1,126 yards and nine receiving scores. Butler averaged a healthy 22.1 yards per reception, while Tarique Milton (34), Deshaunte Jones (42) and Matthew Eaton (26) round out the secondary options.
Washington State’s defense finished the regular season at fourth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, allowing only 17 passing scores in 12 contests. The Cougars allowed nine passing plays of 40 yards or more but gave up just two of 50-plus.
Will Purdy cap off a standout freshman season with a big performance against Washington State’s secondary? Or will the Cougars contain Butler, force Purdy into a couple of mistakes and let their pass rush test an Iowa State line that allowed 28 sacks in the regular season?
This game is all about style of play. Iowa State has the necessary pieces to establish its ground game with Montgomery, opening up opportunities for Purdy and Butler to connect downfield. If the Cyclones control the line of scrimmage on offense, Campbell’s team will keep Washington State on the sideline and limit the opportunities for Minshew. When the Cougars have the ball, Leach’s offense would like to jump out early and force Iowa State out of its comfort zone. The Cyclones should be able to get just enough out of its ground game, while the defense does just enough with the pass rush and effective coverage to finish the 2018 season on a high note.