My confidence in Iowa State has waned since the summer, but I'm sticking with my unpopular pick

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Iowa takes the field against Northern Illinois in its traditional Swarm. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - There is no such thing as a bad victory, but the Iowa football team’s overtime win at Iowa State last season was about as close as it gets for defensive back Jake Gervase.

He remembers the day after the game as much as the game itself because the day after is when Gervase and his defensive cohorts had to watch how and why they continued to bend and often broke during the 44-41 victory.

Iowa escaped from Ames with a third consecutive win over Iowa State, giving Kirk Ferentz his first winning record against the Cyclones at 10-9, but it was mostly due to the contributions on offense where quarterback Nate Stanley threw five touchdown passes.

The Iowa defense, on the other hand, was shredded for 467 yards, including 347 passing yards.

“A win’s a win,” Gervase said. “As coach Ferentz says, they’re hard to come by, and anytime you get a win, celebrate it with your teammates. So we were celebrating in the locker room. But at the same time, you do come in on Sunday and fix those mistakes you made and make some corrections as a defense and try to get better moving forward.”

The Iowa defense’s quest for redemption will start at 4:05 p.m. on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in a much-anticipated game that features two teams with promising potential.

The Iowa seniors also have extra motivation that comes from having a chance to be the first class under Kirk Ferentz to win all four games against the Cyclones.

"Trophy games are kind of the epitome of playing football," said Iowa senior defensive end Parker Hesse. "You train year-round. You practice all week for that one moment after of saying we did it."

This instate rivalry never lacks for hype, and can be chippy and combative at times.

But this year feels different and looks different on paper.

Both teams gushed over each other during the week, and both teams are filled with talented and experienced players on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

No one thing will decide Saturday’s game, but the most intriguing matchup will be Iowa’s defense versus Iowa State’s offense, and more specifically, Iowa’s defensive ends versus Iowa State’s pass protection.

Iowa State running back David Montgomery also will pose a huge challenge for the Iowa defense, as he did last season when he rushed for 112 yards and had five receptions for 53 yards against the Hawkeyes.

“They were a challenging offense last year, and unfortunately, for us, we gave up some big plays and gave up too many points,” Gervase said. “But our offense picked us up and primarily won us that game.

“We’re looking forward to that challenge of trying to shut down that offense on Saturday, and hopefully, not put as much stress on the offense come this weekend.”

Kirk Ferentz had high praise for Montgomery on Tuesday, although, it probably didn’t sit well with Jonathan Taylor’s fans at Wisconsin.

Montgomery and Taylor, who is a sophomore at Wisconsin, are considered two of the top running backs in college football.

“I don't know that we'll see a better back this season,” Ferentz said of Montgomery. “I don't know who's out there, but we're going to see good players. We always do in our conference. But he's as good a back as you're going to face anywhere in the country.

“It starts with him -- first thing about it, he's tough. He's a tough, competitive guy, runs extremely hard, and I thought last year when it really counted, that's when he was at his best. He really kind of -- I don't want to say carried the team, but he sure impacted the game in a really positive way.”

The Iowa defense, particularly the defensive ends, need to put pressure on Iowa State quarterback Kyle Kempt, who has shown that he can be effective when given time in the pocket.

It could be a long day for Kempt, and for the Cyclones, if Iowa’s defensive ends repeatedly collapse the pocket.

Kempt didn’t play against Iowa last season as the backup to the now-departed Jacob Park. But there is plenty of film on Kempt, so he won’t sneak up on Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

On the flipside, Kempt is a sixth-year senior who engineered an upset at Oklahoma last season, so he shouldn’t be in awe of the surroundings.

It could be a long day for Iowa if its running game sputters. Iowa has a 29-1 record over the last 30 games in which it has rushed for at least 100 yards. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more telling statistic about an offense.

Iowa could be without starting running back Ivory Kelly-Martin due to an ankle injury, so you’re already seeing the value of having three running backs that you trust.

Even with a healthy Kelly-Martin, it is likely that fellow sophomore Toren Young still would’ve played early and often on Saturday after what he accomplished against Northern Illinois in the season opener with a team-leading 84 rushing yards off the bench.

Junior-college transfer Mekhi Sargent is another option for Iowa at running back. He is new to the program, but apparently a fast learner, considering how fast he has climbed the depth chart.

Something tells me that screen passes to running backs will have a big impact on Saturday’s games.

Iowa’s two starting tight ends, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, will certainly draw a crowd, and that could create some space for the running backs to catch screen passes.

Montgomery is also a receiving threat as he showed in last season’s game with five catches.

Iowa State has a huge advantage at receiver, so part of the challenge for Gervase and the Iowa defensive backs will be to help narrow that gap.

The Iowa receivers also could help by doing something productive. 

Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette made the game-winning catch in overtime against Iowa State last season as a true freshman, and he also had a 15-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

It's hard to see Iowa winning on Saturday without the receivers doing something positive.

Late in the summer, I picked Iowa State to win this game by a score of 27-24. I’m sticking with that prediction because I think it’s lame to switch after just one week. But I will admit that my confidence in the Cyclones has waned a little bit.

Home-field advantage and the fact that Iowa State’s season opener last Saturday was cancelled less than five minutes into the first quarter due to lightning are two factors that could benefit the Hawkeyes. Coaches often say that teams make their biggest improvement from the first to second game, so that clearly favors Iowa under the unusual circumstances.

But on the other hand, Iowa State might catch Iowa by surprise with one or two trick plays after having shown so little last week. And sometimes, one or two plays can be the difference in a game like this.

This game will come down to which team executes better. It’s that simple and complicated at the same time.

Kinnick Stadium can be a major distraction for the visiting team, especially when that team is Iowa State, and with the new north end zone producing more noise.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to take that in because you’re kind of in the zone locked in,” Gervase said. “But yeah, I’d say it was a little louder. And with the four o’clock kickoff this weekend, it’s basically a night game for us. So I’m assuming our fans are going to be bring a lot of energy, and hopefully, that will give us an edge as a team, and really excited for that on Saturday.

“Playing at home we feel is an edge for us,” Gervase said. “But at the same, we’ve got to protect home. It’s our job. If our fans bring energy, they created a good atmosphere for us, we’ve still got to do our job. We have to play the game.”

Gervase seems to have the right mindset and he certainly has the right motivation for this game. Redemption can be a powerful motivator, especially when fueled by home-field advantage.

But of course, Iowa State will be motivated under third-year head coach Matt Campbell, who has fans believing that the Cyclones are poised for something special.

I also like what Campbell is building in Ames, and that’s why I picked the Cyclones to win over the summer.

I stand by that pick, but my knees are buckling and I feel like I might fall down.

Prediction: Iowa State 27, Iowa 24