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Breaking down Iowa State football's road trip to Akron (11 a.m. Saturday, CBS Sports Network).
David Montgomery has been a serious upgrade at running back. Without getting into hyperbole, he just looks different from other ball carriers Iowa State has used in the last 10 to 15 years. He’s averaging 107 rushing yards in the last five games (97 this season) and has been able to get tough yardage in the red zone. Montgomery has forced 28 missed tackles through two games, only one less than he forced all last season according to Pro Football Focus.
Let's kick this NFL Sunday off right... by going back to 12pm yesterday and watching David Montgomery lay waste to Iowa's D. (Thread) pic.twitter.com/W1G0zYS9gs— Ben Stockwell (@PFF_Ben) September 10, 2017
Montgomery also has proven to be a threat in the passing game, catching five balls for 53 yards in the loss to Iowa. He’s provided offense at times the Cyclones have needed it the most.
Run & pass for Montgomery, didn't matter. 12 MTs forced on the ground, 6 on receptions. pic.twitter.com/MJnHfu3Rcn— Ben Stockwell (@PFF_Ben) September 10, 2017
Akron linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III leads the Zips with 15 tackles and an interception in two games. The defense is No. 19 nationally in tackles for loss (8.5), but if the offensive line can continue its trend from Weeks 1 and 2, Montgomery, Mike Warren and even Johnnie Lang will have room to work.
Advantage: Iowa State
Minus a poorly timed interception last week, quarterback Jacob Park has been solid. He’s top 20 nationally in passing yards per game (309), completions per game (26) and touchdown passes (6). Park has a 60.3 percent completion rate, an ISU school record.
Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler have made things easier for Park, too. Lazard leads the team in receptions (14) and has 131 yards and two scores. Lazard is the school-record holder in career receptions (184), 100-yard receiving games (9) and is the active NCAA leader in consecutive games with a catch (37). Butler is another tall target, and ranks No. 33 nationally in receiving yards per game (101.5) and has three touchdown catches. Marchie Murdock and Trever Ryen have been common targets, too.
The foundation to a prolific passing game has been the offensive line. The unit has given up one sack and only five hurries through two games, giving Park plenty of time to deliver clean throws. If the Cyclones can contend with Akron’s pass rush, which has created 4.0 sacks so far, then Park and the ISU receivers could have a big day.
Advantage: Iowa State
Running back Warren Ball is the Zips’ main threat. He rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and has Power 5 experience. He spent four years at Ohio State, including a redshirt year. Ball, 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, averaged 7.3 yards per carry last week.
Iowa State went into the season with plenty of questions on the defensive line, but so far that group has quieted some worries. Ray Lima and Vernell Trent have given good push at the line and JaQuan Bailey played the best game of his career “bar none,” Coach Matt Campbell said, against Iowa.
Sophomore linebacker Marcel Spears is second in the Big 12 and ninth nationally in tackles per game (11.5). The Cyclones have allowed 141.5 yards per game on the ground, and will have to clean up their missed tackles to stop this attack.
Quarterback Thomas Woodson has been a consistent presence for the Zips, starting 20 games during the last three-plus years. Akron hasn’t aired it out too much through the first two weeks though. Woodson is 27-of-44 passing for 237 yards with a touchdown and interception in the first two games.
The Zips have three receivers with more than 60 yards, led by Tra’Von Chapman, who has eight catches for 65 yards. A.J. Coney has the lone receiving touchdown.
Iowa State expects senior strong safety Reggie Wilkerson (hamstring) to be available. Kamari Cotton-Moya (elbow) is day-to-day. If Akron passes, the linebackers will have to help pick up underneath routes and take some pressure off the younger safeties, like redshirt freshman Lawrence White, that fill in the back end.
Advantage: Iowa State
Iowa State specialists have delivered the first two weeks. Kicker Garrett Owens is 2-for-2 on field goals (24 and 30 yards) and is 11-for-11 on extra points. Colin Downing has 10 punts and is averaging 46.3 yards per kick. The Cyclones have used Trever Ryen and Allen Lazard in punt return and Mike Warren in kickoff return, but there could be some shake-up there. Campbell said Lang could slide into a kickoff return role at some point after recording no snaps against Iowa.
Akron has two juniors at kicker and punter, Tom O’Leary and Nick Gasser, respectively. A blowout loss at No. 5 Penn State and blowout win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff have been drastically different games for the Zips, but they currently rank 127th (of 130 schools) among FBS teams in special teams efficiency.
Advantage: Iowa State
1. The series — Saturday will be the first meeting between Iowa State and Akron. The Cyclones are 24-5 against Mid-American Conference schools, with the last matchup coming in 2015 at Toledo. Iowa State lost 30-23 in 2OT to the Campbell-coached Rockets.
2. Enemy of the state — Iowa State has played six schools from the state of Ohio, going 19-3 in those games. The Cyclones are 7-0 against Ohio and 2-2 versus Toledo.
3. Ohio homecoming — Thirteen ISU coaches and staffers are returning to their home state, including four position coaches. Matt Campbell, offensive coordinator Tom Manning and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock are all from northeast Ohio. The Cyclones also have eight players from Ohio, including Jatairis Grant (Akron).
1. Utilize depth — Iowa State has lost five one-score games in Campbell’s first 14 outings with the Cyclones. There has been an influx of talent that has helped him close the gap, but the next step is to build depth, particularly on the defensive line. J.D. Waggoner, Lima, Trent and Bailey played a lot of reps, especially late in the loss to Iowa. Getting more guys involved — Jamahl Johnson, Enyi Uwazurike, Josh Bailey, Kamilo Tongamoa and Carson Lensing to name a few — will be an asset that could help Iowa State close out close games. Akron is a good place to test it out.
2. Get off the field — Iowa State’s defense allowed four 89-plus yard touchdown drives in the loss to Iowa. That unit has to find ways to get off the field. Against Akron, that’ll have to happen largely by stopping the running attack led by Ball.
3. Make them air it out — Quarterback Thomas Woodson has thrown just 44 passes through two games. Only two Akron receivers have six or more catches — and neither have more than eight. If Iowa State can slow down the running game and force the Zips to pass, it should help the effort to get off the field quicker.
Iowa State will win if ... It can stay on pace with its 41.5 points per game and slow doing the Akron running game, which is averaging 170 yards per game, particularly in the first half.
Akron will win if ... It can disrupt the ISU offensive line, which has allowed only one sack, and force Park into making desperate throws that result in turnovers. If Ball rushes for 120 yards or more, the Zips would likely be in a good position.
Prediction: Iowa State 38, Akron 21