The West Virginia Mountaineers finished the first half of the 2018 college football season undefeated at 5-0 overall and 3-0 in Big 12 Conference play, and also as the highest-ranked team from the league following last week’s 38-22 win over Kansas. The Iowa State Cyclones, who are set to host the Mountaineers Saturday in Ames, are just 2-3 overall and 1-2 in league play, but they have played a far tougher schedule to date. The Cyclones also bring momentum into the matchup after beating a quality Oklahoma State squad 48-42 on the road despite starting a true freshman, third-string quarterback.
West Virginia at Iowa State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: West Virginia -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Both teams have exciting options at quarterback. West Virginia QB Will Grier is one of the top Heisman Trophy candidates through the first half of the season. Grier ranks second nationally in passing (363.8 yards per game), having completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 1,819 yards and 21 touchdowns. He has also averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt, which ranks second in the Big 12 and No. 6 in the country. The only blemish on Grier’s first half: six interceptions, three of which occurred in red-zone scoring opportunities last week against Kansas.
Iowa State QB Brock Purdy has a much shorter track record than Grier, and the true freshman will be making only his second career start this week. However, Purdy burst onto the scene last week when he completed 18-of-23 passes for 318 yards, four touchdowns and one interception and added 84 rushing yards and another score on the ground to secure Big 12 Newcomer of the Week honors.
2. Top targets
Part of Grier’s success can be attributed to one of the best receiving corps in the nation. All-American David Sills V, former 1,000-yard receiver Gary Jennings Jr. and breakout star Marcus Simms all rank among the top 12 in the Big 12 in receiving. Simms is the unexpected leader of the group so far this season with 490 receiving yards on 26 catches (including two touchdowns), and he ranks fourth in the conference with an average of 98.0 receiving yards per game. Sills has 368 yards on 30 receptions, and Jennings has 26 catches for 364 yards, while both have recorded six TDs.
Iowa State’s receiving depth chart might not go as deep, but top target Hakeem Butler has the potential to be just as good as anyone on the West Virginia roster. Butler, an imposing 6-foot-6, 225-pound junior, sits No. 9 on the conference leaderboard with 74.4 receiving yards per game. Overall, he has recorded 18 catches for 372 yards and four TDs, putting him second in the league with an average of 20.67 yards per reception.
3. Controlling the line of scrimmage
Iowa State and West Virginia have both proven themselves capable of putting up big passing numbers, and both have solid rushing attacks as well — especially the Cyclones, though star running back David Montgomery is questionable to play Saturday. And with such offensive power on both sides, the defenses will need to step up.
Fortunately, both units have been good at controlling the line of scrimmage this season. West Virginia linebacker David Long Jr. is one of the most productive defenders in the Big 12. Long leads the Mountaineers with 56 total tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss (second most in the conference), but 17 of his teammates have recorded a TFL on the stat sheet. WVU has recorded 48 tackles for a loss this season, which ranks third in the Big 12 overall and puts the Mountaineers at No. 3 nationally with an average of 9.6 per contest. Iowa State isn’t far behind. Led by JaQuan Bailey, who sits third on the Big 12 leaderboard with 7.5 tackles for a loss this year, the Cyclones rank third as a unit with 42.0 TFLs.
Both offensive lines have been among the best at avoiding negative plays as well. West Virginia’s 24.0 tackles for a loss allowed are the fewest in the league. Iowa State ranks third with 29.0 TFLs allowed this season.
West Virginia comes in as a top-10 team, and Iowa State has had success recently knocking off top-10 opponents. The Mountaineers have a big edge in experience at the quarterback position, although Grier was far from perfect in a closer-than-expected win over Kansas, while Purdy showed huge upside in last week’s upset win over Oklahoma State. Grier also has more weapons at his disposal, especially if Montgomery is limited or can’t play. Nevertheless, the Cyclones have proven capable of winning in a shootout when necessary. The key will be which defense steps up, and though West Virginia isn’t as battle tested, the Mountaineers have an underrated defensive unit. Expect a close game, but with the talent advantage and a healthier lineup, expect WVU to stay undefeated.
Prediction: West Virginia 31, Iowa State 27
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.