The #19 Clemson Tigers (9-3, 6-2) will take on the Iowa State Cyclones (7-5, 5-4) in the Cheez-It Bowl at Wednesday, Dec. 29 at 5:45 p.m... Hopefully. Multiple ACC teams have already seen their bowl games called off due to COVID outbreaks, with NC State’s showcase against UCLA cancelled essentially as fans were tailgating.
It’s been a season of change in Clemson, a university and football program accustomed to doing things in very specific ways that, to their credit, have worked for them. After years of unheard of staff continuity, Clemson has new coordinators for the first time since 2014’s visit to Orlando. On offense quarterback coach Brandon Streeter was promoted to OC. On defense Dabo Swinney promoted veteran safeties coach Mickey Conn and “Coach V’s right hand man” Wes Goodwin to Co-DCs.
Back in 2014, this bowl game was sponsored by Russell Athletic and Dabo Swinney and Clemson were upstarts that hadn’t won anything in decades. Things have changed. In the time between 2014 and now I attended and graduated Clemson. The first dorm I slept in, a renovated old hotel, was demolished and replaced by a glittering, modern, miniature neighborhood. Things changed more for Dabo, he’s won two titles in five years. The one time youthful upstart is a face of the football establishment, and at a serious crossroads without many familiar faces.
It’s fair to say neither Clemson nor Iowa State planned on being here. Iowa State against Clemson would have been a perfectly reasonable playoff prediction in August. The Clemson Tigers entered this year in the preseason top five, with the program’s third “generational talent” at quarterback.
Dabo Swinney and his players have enjoyed more success the past five years than anyone besides Alabama. Iowa State brought back most of the pieces from last years team, perhaps the most successful in program history, as well as head coach Matt Campbell, but both team had years of disappointment.
You won’t hear Dabo sounding disappointed, although the coaches need to repeat how great this bowl is seems to belie what he’s saying when he announces, “First of all, this is a great bowl. This is not a lower-tier bowl. I think this is a great bowl.”
Although Iowa State and Clemson have never played, there is a shared respect between the coaches. Swinney and Campbell have stayed in touch since meeting in an airport, with Campbell even coming to the Clemson coaching clinic a few years back. Brent Venables notably borrowed concepts from Iowa State’s defense in 2019.
This bowl is expected to be close and low scoring, with Vegas favoring Clemson by a point and setting the over/under around 44 points. SP+ has Clemson favored by under a touchdown and doesn’t expect fifty points scored total.
On offense Iowa State have relied on veteran quarterback Brock “pump fake” Purdy and 2020 unanimous All-American running back Breece Hall. Hall was a workhorse, he took all but around fifty of the carries given to Cyclone RB’s and was third on the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Fortunately for Clemson, Hall opted out to prepare for the draft after running roughshod over TCU. Replacing Hall atop the depth chart is Jirehl Brock. Brock has done well in limited opportunities, averaging just under six yards per carry but only carrying twenty-three times this season.
Without their star running back the Cyclones will probably lean on “program GOAT” Brock Purdy in his final game at quarterback. In addition to being Iowa State’s best option, Purdy could conceivably use this bowl game to rise in a weak NFL quarterback class.
Much like their in-state rival Hawkeyes, Iowa State makes heavy use of their tight ends. Starting tight ends Charlie Kosar (#88) and Chase Allen (#11) give the Hawkeyes a pair of 6-6+ receiving targets who can line up anywhere from out wide, in line and the backfield. Jared Rus (#43) is a high impact blocker who can do enough in the passing game to punish teams who ignore him.
Purdy has limited arm strength to push the ball downfield or outside the hashes, so giving him big targets over the middle of the field plays to his strengths. Purdy loves to throw to Allen and Kosar, who can use their big frames to essentially box out smaller players but struggle to separate from man coverage or catch balls thrown above their head.
How Clemson handles these tight ends, with starting LB Baylon Spector out, could go a long way towards deciding the contest. The passing game is reliable but plodding, almost any big play is going to come off of either an RPO or play-action pass.
By motioning the tight ends and taking advantage of their versatility Iowa State is able to shift from heavy personnel groupings to the spread and back.
The tight ends, and until recently Hall, also helped cover up some weaknesses at wide receiver. Xavier Hutchinson (#8) is a stud, freshman Jaylin Noel (#13) has a ton of potential and Tarique Milton (#1) is a proven big play threat. Behind those three there’s little to no production.
Iowa State loves to attack with crossing routes, curl routes against soft outside coverage, RPO’s, and the occasional play-action deep shot in the passing game. The running game generally functions as a constraint against smaller fronts.
The Cyclones offensive line grades out pretty well pass blocking, but just are not the road graders to line up and run the ball forty times a game. A lot of the successful runs were the All-American making something out of nothing. Hall either made something work or got stuffed trying.
Iowa State was mostly an inside zone and outside zone team, with a mix of power and counter, especially from heavier personnel sets. The tight ends that the Cyclones feature so heavily come in handy as lead blockers.
Although Purdy does not carry the ball often he’s good enough at running the ball to make option schemes work and hurt teams to the backside of runs.
He’s also a good and extremely willing scrambler. Is Purdy as good as he thinks he is at scrambling? No, and honestly that’s a lot of the fun of the viewing experience. In Purdy, Iowa State has a good but limited quarterback, who is equally capable of throwing them out of or into this game.
The senior still locks onto targets across the middle of the field. He still pulls miracles out of his rear. He’s still got a popgun arm. This isn’t going to get better, the Cyclones take the good with the bad.
When it works it really works, and when it doesn’t you’re getting picked off three times against the Hawkeyes, or sacked seven times by the Sooners.
It’s hard to know what to expect in bowl games, with so much of success coming down to which team is more motivated on that particular day. We’re not going to know who woke up feeling the cheesiest until after this game is over. If the Tigers are engaged on Wednesday it’s hard to see Iowa State being able to execute consistently enough to move the ball.
Brock Purdy is completing over 70% of his passes and has significantly outplayed DJ Uiagalelei, but he’s not without flaws and seeing how Clemson handles “pump-fake” Purdy will be an interesting test for the new co-DC’s.
Clemson 27, Iowa State 24