KU vs. ISU: The Matchups

Aqib Talib (Steve Puppe photo)

The undefeated, untied and seemingly unstoppable Kansas Jayhawks will play host to a 3-8 Iowa State team on Senior Day Saturday afternoon.

On the surface, it seems like a mismatch. The Jayhawks are in the national title hunt, and run a spread formation offense that distributes the ball to a number of playmakers. On the flip side, up until the past few weeks, Iowa State hasn’t been very good offensively, and lacks the passing game to attack Kansas’s one (perceived) weakness. To make matters worse, injuries and other problems mean that the Cyclones have next to no defensive backs left, meaning inside receivers like Kerry Meier and Dexton Fields will be matched up with linebackers.

But Iowa State has been playing hard of late, and they’ve seen some reward for it. After near misses against Oklahoma and Missouri, they found gold, defeating Kansas State by 11 and using a furious comeback to beat Colorado by three.

On to the matchups:

1) Aqib Talib, cornerback, versus Todd Blythe, wide receiver

Most KU fans remember the 2005 Iowa State game at Memorial Stadium. Blythe, using his height advantage and superior speed, absolutely roasted Charles Gordon in the first half. But the Jayhawks adjusted in the second half, sticking the 6-foot-2 Talib to the 6-5 Blythe, who was seldom heard from again. This year, that matchup has added importance -- it may be what decides the game. Iowa State has struggled to throw the ball this year, and pass for less than 200 yards per game. But when they have been successful, it has often been on big plays to Blythe who averages more than 15 yards per catch. If you shut down Blythe, the Cyclones don’t yet have the playmakers on offense to make you pay in the passing game. If not, Blythe is capable of keeping his team in, or winning, a game.

2) James Holt, linebacker, versus Alexander Robinson, running back

Robinson, as happens with many freshmen, didn’t see the field a whole lot early because of nervousness. Well, it’s safe to say he’s overcome that. Robinson has accounted for ¾ of his yardage in his last three games, where he ran for more than 100 yards against Missouri and Colorado and scored two touchdowns against K-State. He’s not a big back, but can be a threat in the passing game. ISU has spent more time the past few weeks running with a fullback, meaning it will be Joe Mortensen’s job to meet the lead blocker, and the job of Holt and Mike Rivera to clean up the aftermath. Holt, in particular, has been playing extremely well, and will likely find himself following Robinson around on passing downs.

3) James McClinton, defensive tackle, versus the Iowa State interior line

McClinton has had an All-America caliber season for the Jayhawks, using his strength, low center of gravity and get off to create constant problems for opposing offenses. He’s also injured, and was limping almost throughout the Oklahoma State game. McClinton’s presence is especially important against an Iowa State team that doesn’t necessarily throw the ball all that well. If McClinton can help to prevent the Cyclones from running between the tackles, this is probably a game that Kansas wins. If McClinton can’t go, or isn’t at full strength, Jamal Greene, who did a great job filling in last week, will have to step up.

4) Marcus Henry, wide receiver versus Chris Singleton, cornerback

Arguably Iowa State’s biggest weakness is in the defensive backfield, where the Cyclones have little to no depth. They also have little to no height, with Singleton, the team’s best cover guy, standing at 5-10, while the safeties helping him out over the top are 5-10 and 5-8. The Cyclones play a lot of zone, which is a dangerous coverage to play against the Jayhawks, who are experts at running receivers into holes in the defense. Watch for the Jayhawks to test Singleton by running Henry or Briscoe on quick slants right in front of him, and using their height and body size to wall him off. Iowa State’s pass defense does get tighter when in the red zone, but Kansas might be well served by running a fade route to Henry over the top. Singleton is also aggressive, and the Jayhawks might look for a way to take advantage with a double move.

5) Kansas versus Iowa State, not Missouri

This is the first matchup I’ve written that wasn’t about a player, or series of players, in a position-specific matchup, but this is too important of a factor to not include here. Kansas coach Mark Mangino has done a fantastic job thus far of keeping his troops focused on the task at hand, but this is a totally different challenge. The Jayhawks are playing a team with just three wins this year, and a team that lost at Toledo earlier in the season, a team Kansas wiped 45-13. Up next week is Missouri, a rivalry game with added value for both teams because it will likely be for the North championship, and with Oregon’s loss Thursday night, could mean even more than that. This game is like receiving the house Caesar salad just minutes before you know a juicy strip is coming your way. How the Jayhawks treat that salad could affect the outcome of the game.

Iowa State has enough talent, but mostly, enough heart, to bite the Jayhawks if they aren’t looking. Still, Kansas appears to be a bad matchup for the Cyclones, who struggle to stop the pass, and who can’t really throw the ball too well themselves. If Kansas keeps its head down and focuses, the way the Jayhawks have all year, they’ll win this one by a few scores.

Kansas 34

Iowa State 14

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