Liberty Bowl 2-Minute Drill: Iowa State Cyclones vs. Memphis Tigers

Iowa State and No. 20 Memphis will meet in Saturday's Liberty Bowl. (Original photo via USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa State and No. 20 Memphis will meet in Saturday's Liberty Bowl. (Original photo via USA TODAY Sports)

Breaking down Saturday’s Liberty Bowl between Iowa State (7-5) and No. 20 Memphis (10-2) at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tenn. Kickoff is 11 a.m., televised on ABC.

Iowa State rush offense vs. Memphis rush defense

Iowa State running back David Montgomery ended the regular season banged up, but Coach Matt Campbell said Montgomery looks as good as he did in fall camp, which is good news for the Cyclones.

Montgomery earned first-team All-Big 12 honors, carrying the ball 234 times for 1,094 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Montgomery averaged 91 yards per game, Memphis’ defense on the other hand, allowed 197 yards on the ground, which ranks No. 8 in the American Athletic Conference.

Memphis allowed 24 rushing touchdowns during the regular season, so on goal-line and short-yardage situations, it wouldn’t be surprising to see linebacker Joel Lanning in at quarterback to punch it in the end zone.

Advantage: Iowa State

Iowa State pass offense vs. Memphis pass defense

Iowa State has a host of height and talent in its receiving corps. Allen Lazard, Hakeem Butler and Matt Eaton all stand over 6-foot-4 and all three have caught four or more touchdowns with Lazard leading the way with nine.

Quarterback Kyle Kempt doesn’t possess a big arm, but he controls the Iowa State offense, rarely making a mistake and moving the offense down field. Kempt completed 67 percent of his passes and has only thrown three interceptions in the eight games he played.

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Memphis’ pass defense is worse than its rush defense. The Tigers surrender 280 yards through the air per game, which is No. 10 in the American.

The Tigers are able to force quarterbacks to throw interceptions, recording 16. Corner back T.J. Carter leads Memphis with five interceptions.

Advantage: Iowa State

Iowa State rush defense vs. Memphis rush offense

Memphis has a two-headed monster when it comes to running back. Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. both have 130 carries or more on the season. Henderson has 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns while Taylor has 798 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Even though Iowa State played with a three-man front, the Cyclones have had success stopping the run. Teams average just 134 yards on the ground against Iowa State.

The Cyclones’ linebacker corps of Marcel Spears, Willie Harvey and Lanning is able to read plays and play fundamental, gap assignment football that limits runs to short gains.

Teams have only scored 10 rushing touchdowns on Iowa State’s defense this season, which is the second best in the Big 12.

Advantage: Iowa State

Iowa State pass defense vs. Memphis pass offense

Memphis is a lot like a Big 12 team. The Tigers like to move the ball and score points.

Memphis has the No. 2 ranked scoring offense in the American at 47.7 points per game, led by receiver Anthony Miller. Miller has 92 receptions for 1,407 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Quarterback Riley Ferguson leads the conference in passing with 3,971 yards and 36 touchdowns.

All season, Iowa State has been able to slow down potent passing attacks. The Cyclones held Texas Tech to just 13 points and 336 total yards.

Iowa State’s defense is able to slow down high-powered offenses because the Cyclones only rush three players most of the time, dropping seven into coverage and using Lanning as a spy. This keeps the quarterback in the pocket and makes him throw the ball into tight windows and not allowing explosive plays.

This defense ranks No. 2 in the Big 12, allowing just 234 yards per game through the air and recording 12 interceptions.

Advantage: Memphis

Special teams

Memphis boasts one of the best kick returners in the country in Tony Pollard. Pollard has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns in 19 attempts.

On the other hand, Iowa State has little kick return game to speak of. The Cyclones average just 20 yards per return, and have no returns for a touchdown.

On punt returns, the tables are turned. Memphis averages just five yards per return, while Iowa State’s Trever Ryen has returned a punt for a touchdown and averages over 10 yards per return.

The teams have similar punting statistics. Iowa State’s Colin Downing averages 40 yards per punt and has pinned teams inside the 20-yard line 22 times. Memphis has used two punters this season and each punter averages 41 yards per punt.

What separates the special teams units might be the kickers. Iowa State’s Garrett Owens has made 17 of his 21 kicks with a long of 45 yards. Memphis’ Riley Patterson has only attempted 13 field goals, and he’s made nine of them with a long of 42 yards.

Advantage: Iowa State

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Intangibles

1. Iowa State leads the Big 12 in turnover margin at plus-11, while Memphis is second in the American with a plus-14-turnover margin. Whoever wins the turnover battle will be in the driver’s seat to win the game.

2. The game is played in Memphis, Tenn., which should give the advantage to Memphis, however Iowa State has sold out its allotment of 15,000 tickets. That should make it a more neutral-site atmosphere than originally anticipated.

3. The Cyclones haven’t been to a bowl since 2012 and haven’t won a bowl since 2009. The last bowl Iowa State was in was the Liberty Bowl where it lost to Tulsa 31-17. Memphis lost the Boca Raton Bowl to Western Kentucky last season, 51-31. Its last bowl win was the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl over BYU, 55-48 in double overtime.

3 and out

Three keys to victory for Iowa State:

1. Health is key for Iowa State. Both running back David Montgomery and quarterback Kyle Kempt ended the season banged up. If they’re both healthy, that’ll help Iowa State’s chances significantly.

2. Iowa State lost three of its last four games by a combined 12 points. The Cyclones need to find a way to finish against Memphis if it has it backed into a corner.

3. Iowa State coach Matt Campbell preaches the details. Iowa State is the least penalized team in the Big 12, while Memphis is the second most penalized in the American.

Liberty Bowl prediction

Iowa State wins if… the Cyclones establish the run game and don’t turn the ball over to keep Memphis’ high-powered offense off the field.

Memphis wins if… the Tigers can get explosive plays against Iowa State’s stout secondary.

Prediction: Iowa State 34, Memphis 28

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