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2023 MAC Football Week 3 Game Preview: Iowa State Cyclones @ Ohio Bobcats

A younger Cyclones squad travels to Athens, Ohio for a rare Big 12 road trip to Peden Stadium.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Ohio at Florida Atlantic
Ohio’s tight end Will Kacmarek (87) celebrates a touchdown reception last week with his teammates.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Iowa State (1-1) heads to Ohio (2-1) this week to finish a home-and-home series.

The trip to Ohio for a Big 12 team is fairly rare, as this trip will mark only the second such game since Ohio head coach Tim Albin’s arrival in Athens in 2005 as the offensive coordinator.

The last meeting versus the Big 12 at Ohio was a visit by the Kansas Jayhawks exactly six years ago from the date of this week’s game, in a contest where the ‘Cats cruised to a 40-32 win. The score was a lot closer than the game actually was, as Ohio took a 39-14 lead into the fourth quarter and the Jayhawks added 16 points in “garbage time” to make the score look respectable.

This year’s matchup versus the Big 12 certainly promises to be a drastically more competitive affair, as Iowa State is vastly superior to the Jayhawks squad that rode a 41-game road losing streak into that 2017 matchup.

The Bobcats are undefeated (7-0) on their home field since it was christened ‘The Frank’ in honor of former head coach Frank Solich and this will be the toughest test to date to defend that streak.

Last year, Iowa State dominated Ohio in a 43-10 win as they rolled to a 24-point lead early in the second quarter benefiting greatly by a glut of self-inflicted Bobcats wounds that took them out of things early in the contest.

In fact, it was that thrashing which caused Tim Albin and company to completely re-work their offensive and defensive philosophies, which has reaped some rewards to say the least.

Coming into the rematch, the squads are significantly different for different reasons. We take a look at where each is and offer our prediction.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 16th, 2023 at 12 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: ESPNU (A valid cable subscription is required)
  • Location: Frank Solich Field at Peden Stadium in Athens, Ohio
  • Gambling considerations: Per DraftKings, Iowa State is a 2.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 45.
  • Last Time: Iowa State won 43-10 in 2022.
  • All-time series: Iowa State 6-0. Ohio’s only home meeting was in 2001, a 31-28 loss.

Getting to Know The Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa v Iowa State
ISU defensive back Jeremiah Cooper #4 in action last week versus the Iowa Hawkeyes. Cooper leads the Cyclones with three interceptions in 2023
Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images

The contest versus Ohio is the third of the season for the Cyclones with a 30-9 win over Northern Iowa (FCS) and a 20-13 loss to rival Iowa Hawkeyes.

ISU heads into this one under the guidance of head coach Matt Campbell, who returns for his eighth season. The three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year is the Only Cyclones head coach since Earl Bruce in 1973-78 to have an overall winning record at ISU.

MAC fans may be familiar with Campbell whose career began as an offensive coach at Bowling Green for several years before being named head coach at Toledo, where he won back-to-back MAC West titles in his final two seasons before heading to Iowa State.

The Cyclones have some key differences offensively in this one compared with last year, replacing their offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, starting quarterback, leading rusher, and leading pass catchers at receiver and tight end from 2022.

With only two games including the annual rivalry game against defensive-minded Iowa Hawkeyes, there is not enough sample size to make any real conclusions but offensively ISU has a total of 540 yards with four touchdowns (three passing). The Cyclones have not hit their stride yet on explosive plays with just one run and one pass over 20 yards in 120 snaps (26-yard rush, 36-yard pass).

The new leader at offensive coordinator is Nate Scheelhaase, who was promoted from within after wearing various hats as an offensive coach with the Cyclones since 2018. Scheelhaase was a standout QB at Illinois from 2010-13, rushing and passing for over 10,500 yards.

Guiding the Cyclones offense on the field is first-year starter redshirt Rocco Becht, the son of eleven-year NFL veteran tight end Anthony Becht. The six-foot-one signal caller has completed 58 percent of his passes in his first two starts, with 315 yards and a 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Becht only has a few rushing attempts but clearly has the athleticism to pull the ball down and run if the opportunity arises. Becht appeared briefly last year against Ohio, going 0-2 passing.

Don’t be surprised to see six-foot-seven, 250 lbs. freshman QB JJ Kohl get some reps as he is a four-star prospect who had offers from Ohio State and Auburn among many others.

The Cyclones most experienced offensive unit is the offensive line, returning four starters each with double digit starts including guards Darrell Simmons Jr. and Jarrod Hufford with 36 and 21 career starts respectively.

ISU would like nothing more than to run the ball against the Bobcats and bring to the table some talent in the running back group led by the physical Cartievious Norton with 108 yards on the season. Like the Bobcats, ISU will probably use more than one back with the speedster freshman Abu Sama III probably getting work.

The Bobcats did pretty well against ISU’s rushing attack last year with the exception of two explosive plays which accounted for more than half of the Cyclones 163 rushing yards. Ohio’s defense looks clearly better than last year’s squad was at this point last season and may be able to limit the run forcing ISU to rely more on the freshman Becht in the passing game. On the young season the ‘Cats are 13th in the FBS in rushing defense averaging 64 yards allowed per game in three games.

On the outside, ISU has some proven weapons starting with Eastern Kentucky transfer Jayden Higgens who stands about six-foot-four and leads the club with 110 yards receiving on nine grabs with a score.

The main guy returning in the wide receiving group is Jaylin Noel, who has 110 catches for almost 900 yards in his career. Noel is also a seasoned punt returner with a long of 39 yards this year.

ISU will run a lot of multiple tight end formations and, like Ohio, although they are instrumental to the running attack, the players in this group can be factors in the passing game. Through two games, at least four tight ends have caught a pass led by Benjamin Brahmer’s 59 yards and a score.

The defense returns its main guy in defensive coordinator Jon Heacock and will run a 3-3-5 defense with multiple fronts and personnel.

Speaking of personnel, ISU’s defensive cast of characters has had some significant changes at all levels of the defense since they played Ohio last year with the key losses including the NFL-bound duo of defensive end Will McDonald IV (15th overall to the New York Jets) and safety Anthony Johnson Jr. (242nd overall to Green Bay). A major force in last year’s game, linebacker O’Rein Vance, has also graduated.

ISU will not likely have another Will McDonald IV waiting in the wings, but the Cyclones will still have a number of quality Big 12-caliber players to bring to the contest.

And although Johnson Jr. will be missed, ISU’s defensive backfield has looked very formidable this year led by Jeremiah Cooper with three interceptions and ten tackles. So far this season, Cooper has shown some real ability to break on the ball and will hit harder than his 185 pounds might suggest is possible. Cooper is joined by Beau Freyler, Myles Purchase, and TJ Tampa all of whom will have a potential impact in this one.

As good as Ohio’s wideouts are, it can be challenging to find space where ISU has this talented defensive backfield and can get pressure with only a three- or four-man rush.

Getting to Know The Ohio Bobcats

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Ohio at Florida Atlantic
Ohio’s DL Rodney Mathews (#5), DE Bradley Weaver (right), and DE Watkins (back) close in on FAU’s ball carrier last week. The Bobcats surrendered five net rushing yards to the Owls.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So far, Ohio has played three games this season with a 20-13 loss @ San Diego State Aztecs, a 27-10 win against the LIU Sharks, and a 17-10 road win over the FAU Owls.

A key takeaway from those first three is the need for ball security going forward. In 2022, Ohio had a total of 13 turnovers (five interceptions, eight fumbles) in fourteen games while the ‘Cats have eight already this season (six interceptions) in three games. While the 10 points surrendered off turnovers against the LIU Sharks were relatively harmless given the talent gap and game pace, the turnovers had a significant impact in a loss to San Diego State and the close win over FAU 17-10.

On the season, Ohio is allowing just 11 points defensively on average, excluding a pick-six versus the Owls.

Ohio’s defense enters the contest after befuddling the FAU Owls offense last week in one of the best examples of team defense against a quality road opponent in quite some time. The ‘Cats held the Owls scoreless on 12 of 13 possessions, allowing three points on a 13-yard Owls drive starting at Ohio’s 25-yard line.

Just as ISU would love to run the ball this week, the Bobcats would love to have a performance anywhere near the one last week where Ohio held FAU to five net rushing yards.

While we could talk about the obvious anchors of the defense in linebackers Keye Thompson and Bryce Houston, a lot of players are contributing without making splash stats. For instance, defensive lineman Rodney Mathews, Bradley Weaver, and Rayyon Buell combined for only seven tackles and a half of a sack last week but did a lot of the dirty work in the trenches to help put the Owl’s running game in a deep freeze.

The defensive backs as a unit should present a very credible counter to ISU’s maturing passing game. Some real depth has emerged at the back end of the defense where any number of defensive backs can compete including Justin Birchette, Roman Parodie, Torrie Cox Jr., Walter Reynolds, Austin Brawley, Mekah Ryder, and Tank Pearson.

Offensively, Ohio has generally done enough of what it needed to do in order to win two of the first three games, averaging about 19 points per contest on the season.

The success so far is grounded in a physical offensive line that has won more battles than not in the running game to keep the chains moving on enough drives to get enough points. In game number two Ohio overwhelmed the LIU defense at times on the ground while wearing down a solid FAU defense in the second half to find the ten points needed for the victory.

Manning the offensive line for the ‘Cats from left to right tackle are Jay Amburgey, Kurt Danneker, Parker Titsworth, Christophe Atkinson, and Shedrick Rhodes Jr. Tackle/guard Joe Habinowsky emerged in 2023 as a sixth man, getting some work in all three games at guard and tackle.

Operating behind that offensive line the Bobcats feature a dynamic duo of runners in Sieh Bangura and O’Shaan Allison. Bangura leads the ‘Cats with 217 yards on the ground while Allison had his best game of the year last week with 80 yards and a rushing touchdown.

There is optimism that Ohio’s offense will turn the corner and start clicking more regularly and finishing more drives. The squad returned most of the players from the MAC’s top scoring offense in 2022 but have been bit by the injury bug with key players only recently returning.

2022 MAC MVP QB Kurtis Rourke returned last week from an injury that happened in the first quarter of the Week 0 game while his leading targets wideout Sam Wiglusz and Jacoby Jones also returned vs. FAU.

Ohio has added another reliable threat in wideout Tyler Walton, who leads the squad with 128 yards receiving on 12 catches and a receiving score. Walton also handles punt return duties.

The Bobcats feature a couple of big targets in the tight end group that could come in handy versus ISU. Six-foot-six, 250 lbs. sophomore tight Will Kacmarek is typically a reliable option in the passing game and flashed some leaping ability and good hands in the red zone last week on a 13-yard score. Freshman Mason Williams has emerged to turn in some big plays early in his career with three catches for 78 yards and a receiving score.


A lot has changed for both squads since ISU’s 43-10 win in 2022 and based on those changes the Cyclones head to Athens, Ohio as only slight favorites, -2.5.

Whatever the personnel changes for ISU, they are still at heart a squad packed with Big 12 talent molded by several experienced, successful coaches like Matt Campbell and Jon Heacock. With the leap in overall talent of the opponent this week, Ohio’s room for error has shrunk considerably from their week three victory over FAU where the ‘Cats committed three turnovers.

Ohio will need to play a clean game and field position and special teams play will be critical factors. Both teams feature strong defenses so anything either team can do to give its offense the short field could pay dividends.

Assuming a clean game, what it should come down to is a defensive battle where the team that can run the ball the best, hit a few explosive plays, and convert limited red zone opportunities should win.

With the return of some major offensive weapons last week the ‘Cats put it all together this week to defend The Frank, 24-23.