Following their nail-biter of a win last weekend, your 3-4 Baylor Bears travel back to McLane Stadium to host the 4-3 Iowa State Cyclones. Baylor has traditionally done well in Waco against the Cyclones. Since they began playing each other in 1988, Baylor is 7-3 all-time at home but only 5-6 in Ames. Can that pattern continue on Saturday? Read on to find out!
Iowa State in 2023
Over the summer, news broke that student athletes at Iowa State and the University of Iowa were alleged to have engaged in illegal sports gambling. When starting QB Hunter Dekkers and 2022’s leading rusher Jirehl Brock were among those charged, the outlook for Iowa State’s season cratered. Losses to Iowa and Ohio and in the first few weeks didn’t help.
Somehow, the Cyclones have turned things around and won three of their four conference games, losing only to #6 Oklahoma. Our one common opponent, Cincinnati, lost to Iowa State 30-10. What should we credit for their mid-season success? Defense. Specifically, pass defense.
Iowa State's defensive consistency over the past 7 years (when Heacock made the switch to the 3-3-5) is a sight to behold.— Travis Roeder (@Travis_Roeder) October 23, 2023
The %'s are: Overall success rate (standard downs, passing downs).
They're effectively cranking out Baylor's 2021 defense every year at Iowa State. pic.twitter.com/ZvhUWZDo5g
The Cyclones allow a 34.1% success rate on passing plays, good for fifth in the country. In terms of expected points allowed per passing play, they’re 19th. For raw stats against FBS opponents, they allow 202 passing yards per game (35th in the country). Working in their favor is a 54.9% completion percentage allowed (12th in the country); however, they are near dead-last in the country with a 3.3% sack rate. For context, that’s half of our sack rate!
Against the run, they are good but not great. They allow 4.0 yards per rush against FBS opponents (57th in the country) and 135.3 rushing yards per game (50th in the country). Their success rate allowed on rushing plays is 39.6% (63rd in the country).
Put it all together and Iowa State has the 20th best opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency in the country.
Offensively...they have some work to do. Their passing attack has a 38.7% success rate (92nd in the country), and somehow that’s better than their running game’s 33.3% success rate (127th in the country).
Here’s a rundown of offensive stats against FBS opponents — see if you spot a pattern: scoring offense? 98th in the country. Yard per game? 91st. Yards per pass attempt? 75th. Yards per rush? 94th. Third down conversion percentage? 107th.
The only two offensive stats that Iowa State is better than mediocre at are red zone scoring percentage (87.5%, 44th in the country), sack rate (2.0%, 6th in the country), and fumbles lost (0.0, tied 1st).
Iowa State players to watch
Losing your presumed starting quarterback late in the summer with only a redshirt freshman as backup is hard, but #3 Rocco Becht has stepped up to the job. As a passer, he’s hitting on 60% of attempts for 7.1 yards per attempt, has 12 touchdowns to five interceptions, and has been sacked only four times. He’s also ran the ball 32 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns. He’s not going to lead the team in rushing, but his legs are a big reason he can avoid sacks and give his receivers time.
One more thing about Becht — the coaching staff is doing a good job keeping things simple for the freshman. Per ProFootballFocus, over half of his attempts are less than ten yards downfield, and he’s completing 71.6% of them. However, he’s shown the ability to hit the deep ball, especially in the deep center of the field, where he has four touchdowns and a 145.8 NFL passer rating.
Becht’s favorite target is receiver #13 Jaylin Noel (34 receptions on 50 targets, 9.1 YPC), but the true threat of the wide receiver room is #9 Jayden Higgins. Higgins transferred to Iowa State this season after two years at Eastern Kentucky. With only 23 receptions, he leads the team in yards (438), yards per catch (19.0), longest reception (75), and touchdowns (3). And unlike some other big-name receivers we’ve faced this season, Higgins does not have a problem with dropping the ball. In fact, he’s been credited with zero drops all season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the majority of Iowa State’s playmakers are deep in the backfield. Start with true sophomore #4 Jeremiah Cooper. Cooper is tied for first in the nation with five interceptions already this season, including one pick-six. Per PFF he’s allowing only a 53% completion percentage when targeted and he hasn’t given up a single touchdown in coverage.
For the record, Cooper’s 87.2 coverage rating is second in the Big 12 (minimum 100 coverage snaps), behind only his teammate #2 T.J. Tampa. As a senior cornerback, Tampa is allowing a 47% completion percentage, has five pass break-ups and two interceptions, and has allowed only one touchdown all season.
Another excellent defender is #17 Beau Freyler. The junior safety has three interceptions and two pass break-ups, is fourth on the team (and 15th in the conference) with a coverage grade of 76.0, and is tied for the team leader (per PFF anyway) with two sacks. He also leads the team with 37 tackles.
The final player to mention is redshirt sophomore linebacker #50 Caleb Bacon. Bacon leads the team with an overall defender grade of 88.1, a run defender grade of 92.4, and a pass rush grade of 92.4. He has 12 quarterback pressures, two sacks, and 18 solo tackles (per PFF).
FEI projects a 26-19 Iowa State win (66% likelihood). SP+ projects a similar, but slightly more even, 26-22 Cyclone victory (60% likelihood). FPI is the most lopsided with a 70% Cyclone win.
I think Iowa State has the edge in this one. Baylor relies on Blake Shapen to make things happen through the air, and that’s the strength of Iowa State’s defense. It’s also one of the best pass defenses in the country. If Baylor is going to move the ball, they will need to establish the run game, and that’s something they’ve struggled with all season. We can’t go practically the entire first half without a running back carry as we did against Cincinnati, though I don’t expect the coaches to try that, either.
On the other side of the ball, it’s also strength against strength; however, if the passing game sputters for the Cyclones, they could have an easier time falling back on the ground game. This game may be decided by whether the 127th ranked rushing offense can produce against the 127th ranked rushing defense. Pardon the cliché, but we’ll find out what happens when a stoppable force meets a moveable object.
My prediction: Iowa State 30, Baylor 20.