Zeb Noland said he’s always prepared to be the starting QB. He could get that chance now, with Kyle Kempt’s MCL injury.
Matthew Bain, Sports writer
IOWA CITY, Ia. —During Iowa State’s first drive of the season Saturday, the Cyclones marched accross the field and moved the ball all the way to the Iowa Hawkeyes’ 1-yard line. With the Cyclones facing a fourth-and-goal, head coach Matt Campbell sent his offense back on the field to try to get to the end zone.
But Iowa State left guard Josh Mueller was whistled for a false start penalty, pushing the ball back five yards and prompting Campbell to send his special teams unit onto the field to kick a field goal instead.
The play was a precursor of all the problems that would come Iowa State’s way the rest of the night.
Iowa State’s offensive line was pushed around, and the offense never got anything going in a 13-3 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes before an announced sellout crowd of 69,250 fans at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
“At the line of scrimmage, where games are still won in this sport, they dominated,” Campbell said. “And unfortunately, we didn’t have the ability to respond. I thought our defensive line really hung in there for the majority of the football game. (But it’s) hard when offensively, we couldn’t sustain any consistency, especially up front.”
And did it show.
Iowa State mustered just 188 yards of total offense, including only 19 on the ground. Quarterback Kyle Kempt was also sacked three times and left the game in the second half with a knee injury. Campbell said he didn’t expect the injury to be season-ending, but Kempt’s availability for next Saturday’s game against Big 12 Conference favorite Oklahoma.
It could add another problem to the Iowa State offense, which is already facing a long list of questions, specifically on the offensive line.
The group struggled to open up holes for Iowa State’s running game and failed to give Kempt time to find targets. And it spoiled a strong performance by the Cyclones defense that kept Iowa out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. and kept its team in the game all night.
“It exposed us in some of the most critical times,” Campbell said. “And the reality of it is, you saw the end result.”
One of the most critical moments came on Iowa State’s opening drive when the Cyclones marched odwn the field with ease. But the drive stalled on the 1-yard line when Kempt threw an incomplete fade pass to wide receiver Hakeem Butler to set up fourth down. Campbell planned to gamble by going for it. Then came Mueller’s penalty. Iowa State settled for a 23-yard field goal from Connor Assalley.
Instead of setting the tone with a strong drive that ended in a touchdown, the Cyclones stumbled to the finish line, instead taking just a 3-0 lead. The Cyclones then spent the rest of the night failing to find that first-possession magic.
“We came right off the bat and got it going with that first drive, and really, we were just trying to replicate it the whole game,” said Iowa State tight end Chase Allen. “They’ve got such a good defensive front. It’s hard to get those easy yards, so we start playing behind the chains. It’s really hard to get going when you’re battling 2nd-and-12 and 2nd-and-13.”
That’s the situation Iowa State was seemingly in all game. And none of Iowa State’s stars could bail them out. Butler, who didn’t have a catch in the first half, finished with just three receptions for 35 yards. Kempt was 15-for-21 but just for 126 yards. His replacement, backup Zeb Noland, wasn’t much better, going just 4-for-10 for 43 yards.
Noland also felt the impact of Iowa State’s offensive line struggles, getting sacked for a loss of eight yards and then fumbling the football on the Cyclones’ final drive.
“In the end, that’s the difference and we’ve got to get it figured out,” Campbell said.
Iowa State tried to prepare for the experience of Iowa’s defensive line by tinkering with the starting lineup it had trotted out the week before in the canceled game against South Dakota State. Redshirt junior Julian Good-Jones, who had been suspended, started at center in place of redshirt freshman Colin Newell. Good-Jones had originally been listed as the starter at left tackle. Instead, redshirt sophomore Sean Foster started there.
“I just felt like experience was the right thing to do,” Campbell said. “Now, is that the right thing going forward? Obviously, we’ll watch the film and make the best decision for this football team moving forward.”
Campbell wasn’t willing to blame any of the offensive line’s issues on not having last Saturday’s game as a warm-up before going against the experienced unit of the Hawkeyes. But he did say experience is the most necessary ingredient moving forward.
“It’s going to take a couple of weeks until that line shakes out to what it really is and what we want it to be going forward,” Campbell said.
The good news for Iowa State is that it likely won’t face a defensive line as deep or as strong as Iowa’s again this season. The bad news: These problems probably won’t be fixed immediately.
“We’ve got to get better,” Campbell said.
There is hope. And there is precedent. Iowa State’s offensive line has been a big issue heading into the previous two seasons. The line struggled early but showed growth. Campbell expected the same this season but reiterated that it could take time.
“It’s their first game. So, going against, in my opinion, a very senior-led excellent defensive front, I think they need to get out and get that experience and play. A lot of guys are playing different positions. Some guys are getting out there and really being counted on for the first time,” Campbell said. “This group’s going to have to grow and I wish you could rub your hands and make it happen but they need to (get) experience and they’ve got to go play.”