AMES, Iowa (AP) — The annual matchup between the Cyclones and Hawkeyes is viewed as perhaps the biggest sporting event of the year in Iowa.
The game might not feel quite so big this year, with Iowa and Iowa State off to unimpressive starts, though the Cyclones insist Saturday’s matchup will be as intense as ever.
Iowa State has only played once, losing to FCS school Northern Iowa at home on Aug. 31. The only win for the Hawkeyes (1-1) came last weekend against lowly FCS opponent Missouri State.
Those early stumbles have threatened to take some of the buzz out of the 61st meeting between the state’s largest schools. But for Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads, early losses won’t dull the drama that always precedes their matchup with the Hawkeyes.
“The week is electric,” Rhoads said. “There’s great energy and emotion surrounding this football game, but absolutely no difference going into the game based on records of our first game or theirs, I’m sure.”
What has changed for Iowa State is their depth chart.
After slipping up in a 28-20 loss to the Panthers, the Cyclones have shifted things around on defense.
Freshman linebacker Luke Knott, whose brother Jake ranked among the best to ever play at Iowa State, has been named a starter ahead of junior Jevohn Miller.
Sam E. Richardson, a sophomore with the same name as Iowa State’s starting quarterback, has moved ahead of freshman Charlie Rogers as the left cornerback.
Knott came on in relief of Miller after Iowa State was gashed on three long drives that ended in touchdowns for the Panthers. Knott’s presence helped steady the defense, much like his brother did as an All-Big 12 performer in 2012.
“He’s fast. He fills the gaps correctly, and that’s big for us right now,” safety Deon Broomfield said of Knott. “I’m excited for him. He’ll be good for us.”
Richardson was impressive in fall camp, but he couldn’t quite hold off the surging Rogers for the spot opposite senior Jansen Watson. He’ll get his shot against the Hawkeyes, though Rogers will likely play a lot as well.
“Did he get attacked a little bit in the (first) game? Yes, but it was more positioning than it was him,” Rhoads said about Richardson. “But he’s really played well from August 5th on.”
On Saturday, Iowa snapped a seven-game losing streak that had hung over the program for nearly a year.
But Hawkeyes fans weren’t exactly blown away by a meager 28-14 win over the FCS Bears, who have just five victories since the start of 2011.
Still, Iowa was finally able to move beyond the constant stress caused by the skid, and Rhoads thinks the Hawkeyes will likely be a much better team now that it’s over.
“They were trying to get that (win) and put an end to what people were talking about and so forth. Any time you put pressure on yourself, you don’t perform at a maximum level,” Rhoads said.
Saturday’s game in Ames is sold out, of course, and the incessant jawing between rival fans from Sioux City to Dubuque will go on unabated.
The matchup might not be as highly anticipated as in recent years, when both programs were expected to go to bowl games. But by the time kickoff rolls around on Saturday afternoon, Rhoads thinks the state will pick sides and tune in like they always do.
“I refer to it as a fun rivalry. I think the state enjoys it. I think both programs enjoy it,” Rhoads said.
IN IOWA CITY, Iowa has done nearly everything it can think of spice up its offense. The once-conservative Hawkeyes have played no huddle, embraced the shotgun more than ever and have even given opponents the occasional spread look.
And yet through two games, Iowa’s best play has been an old favorite. Send a big back up the middle and dare defenses to stop him.
That player this season has been converted fullback Mark Weisman, a 236- pounder who has blossomed into the team’s most consistent playmaker heading into Saturday’s game.
Weisman is ninth nationally with 280 yards rushing — on a team-high 50 carries — and has reached the 100-yard plateau twice this season. He set a career high with 30 carries in last week’s 28-14 win over Missouri State, finishing with 180 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s a physical running back. He breaks one or two tackles every time he touches the ball, and that’s just going to open up the passing game, play action. The linebackers are going to have to respect the run,” Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz said. “It’s a very valuable weapon.”
Weisman’s play through a pair of games is also a reminder of what could have been a year ago for the Hawkeyes.
Had Weisman stayed healthy, Iowa might not have finished 2012 on a six- game tailspin.
Weisman ran for 100 yards in four straight games, and it was no coincidence that the Hawkeyes went 3-1 in those games. They also got their only Big Ten wins against Minnesota and Michigan State, as Weisman combined for 293 yards and two touchdowns.
Weisman’s bruising running style is bound to put him at the risk of injuries though, and ankle and hip issues limited his effectiveness in the second half of 2012.
Weisman, a notorious workout fanatic, spent the offseason conditioning as a tailback rather than a fullback. He said he’s been able to stay healthy so far.
“Having to run with the skill guys, they’re pushing you even more. So yeah, it helped a little bit,” Weisman said.
Weisman keyed a 296-yard game for the Hawkeyes last Saturday, which was Iowa’s best rushing performance in eight years. Much of that success can be credited to the offensive line, which is also healthy after being devastated by injuries in 2012.
Weisman is much more comfortable following the lead of his line rather than trying to improvise, so he and his blockers must work in tandem for the yards to come.
“He’s an outstanding football player and running back, and his numbers certainly back that up,” Rhoads said. “I remember a year ago, watching that offensive line, and knowing what the future held for them and how strong and powerful they were going to be — and that’s showing up right now, and he’s benefits from them. But he’s a dang good football player.”
The plan for Iowa heading into 2013 was to spread its carries out among a number of Big Ten-ready backs.
But so far, half of those 100 attempts so far have gone to Weisman.
Fellow back Damon Bullock has 116 yards on 27 tries — but his 4.3 yards per attempts is far below Weisman’s 5.6 yards a carry.
Jordan Canzeri has just five carries in his first season back from ACL surgery, and imposing freshman Leshun Daniels Jr. got the first six carries of his career last week.
But it’ll be hard for the Hawkeyes to stray from Weisman if he continues to produce at the All-Big Ten-type level he’s shown so far.
“We have four backs that we feel good about,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Things are kind of dictated by how the game goes. But Mark’s doing a good job, and we’re not surprised by that.”