UNLV Football: First Look at the Iowa State Cyclones
The Rebels will host Big 12 power Iowa State in non-conference play this fall. Here’s our early preview of what to know about the Cyclones.
Another tough draw for UNLV.
UNLV Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
After opening the 2021 football season at home against Eastern Washington, the UNLV Rebels square off at Sun Devil Stadium with Arizona State on September 11. It hasn’t been the smoothest off-season ever for ASU, what with an investigation into recruiting violations still ongoing, but the talent they’ll bring to the field this fall is undeniable. A true upset bid might be a bridge too far for Marcus Arroyo and company, but the Sun Devils can still be a useful measuring stick for how far UNLV has progressed in such a short time.
Location: Ames, Iowa
Conference: Big 12
2020 Record: 9-3 (8-2 Big 12)
Head Coach: Matt Campbell (sixth year; 35-28 at Iowa State, 70-43 overall). Are the Cyclones on the verge of becoming a true national power? Iowa State has strung together four winning seasons for the first time since 1923-27 and managed to keep Campbell in the fold despite overtures from some of college football’s highest-profile programs.
They finished ranked ninth in the Associated Press top 25 after knocking off Oklahoma and Texas in the regular season to reach their first Big 12 title game. Though Iowa State lost the championship rematch to the Sooners, they rebounded with a convincing win over Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl and enter 2021 as a legitimate dark horse for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
RB Breece Hall
Only three running backs have won the Heisman Trophy since 2000, but Hall could be this season’s best bet to make it four. He finished sixth in that vote last fall after leading the country with 1,572 rushing yards (at 5.63 yards per carry) and scored 23 total touchdowns, the latter of which set a school record. Simply put, he’s a terror who just might be the single best player any Mountain West team will have to prepare for this season.
Breece Hall on TD runs in 2020:
💥Yards – 389 (1st)
💥Missed Tackles Forced – 18 (1st)pic.twitter.com/tYQgsAKqAv
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 12, 2021
TE Charlie Kolar
If Kolar has to settle for winning the John Mackey Award where Hall is a legitimate candidate as the best player in the land, it’s hard to imagine Iowa State fans complaining. After all, he was a finalist for the honor in 2020 after catching 44 passes for 591 yards and seven touchdowns, and only Kyle Pitts has received a higher grade for his pass-catching prowess over the last two seasons from Pro Football Focus.
DE Will McDonald IV
Iowa State’s recent successes have been largely defined by offensive stars, but this rising sophomore from Pewaukee, Wisconsin is well positioned to do something about that. McDonald led the Cyclones with 13.5 tackles for loss and, more impressively, tied for the FBS lead and set a program record with 10.5 sacks. If UNLV isn’t careful, he could make the game’s sixty minutes feel a lot longer.
QB Brock Purdy
Maybe no Iowa State player is more emblematic of the program’s rise to prominence than the senior quarterback from Gilbert, Arizona. Purdy took on the starting role as a true freshman in 2018, the first Cyclone to do so since 1995, set a number of school records as a sophomore in 2019, and then became the Big 12’s best signal-caller last season with a 66.6% completion rate, 2,750 passing yards and 19 touchdowns. Though he is still prone to the occasional mistake (2.4% career interception rate), he’s going to get a long look as a NFL prospect this fall.
SS Greg Eisworth II
If McDonald is the defense’s up-and-comer, then Eisworth is its well-decorated veteran. Last season, he became the first player in Iowa State history to be named to the all-Big 12 first-team defense three times after picking up 47 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and an interception, doing so while moving from one role in the defensive backfield to another.
The Cyclones didn’t have many weaknesses on offense and, other than a lackluster performance in their 2020 season opener against Louisiana, were pretty consistent from week to week: They finished 31st nationally by yards per play and in the top 30 by points per drive, offensive available yards percentage, and expected points added.
For UNLV, the toughest pill to swallow might be that all eleven starters are back, including at least one all-Big 12 first-team player in every unit. Beyond Purdy, Hall and Kolar, the Rebels will also have to contend with junior wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson (64 catches, 771 yards, four TDs), junior center Colin Newell and the rest of an offensive line that was above average by just about every traditional and advanced metric in 2020.
Iowa State’s defense did its part to help the Cyclones reach new heights last year, finishing 11th overall by defensive SP+. Unlike the offense, however, they do have to replace a few key starters.
Chief among the losses is defensive end JaQuan Bailey, the program’s all-time leader in sacks and tackles for loss, though McDonald and senior defensive tackle Eyioma Uwazurike (eight TFLs, three sacks) should ensure the line remains disruptive. The return of linebacker Mike Rose, an All-American and the Big 12’s reigning defensive player of the year, will also help.
In the secondary, the only starting job truly up for grabs is at free safety, but incoming transfer Jaquan Amos was a multi-year starter at Villanova and in-house sophomore candidate Kym-Mani King has seen action in 15 games across the last two seasons.
Iowa State is one of the nation’s most well-balanced teams and a lock to start 2021 somewhere in the higher reaches of the top 25, which makes the timing of this matchup extremely poor for UNLV. While it’ll be nice to see the Rebels showcase their new digs against a big-time opponent for the first time, it’s hard to see how they’ll remain competitive for the entire game.
Iowa State 45, UNLV 10