Hawkeye football mailbag: The trick to stopping David Montgomery; Iowa's keys to victory

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team is 1-for-1 in 2018 in slowing down the opposing team’s star player.

The Hawkeyes successfully kept all-American defensive end Sutton Smith to an average performance and slammed Northern Illinois 33-7 last Saturday.

Going 2-for-2 in star-stopping will be an entirely different animal.

How to slow Iowa State running back David Montgomery? Sure, the Cyclones have a slew of other playmakers to worry about. But Montgomery’s dynamic presence in last year’s game made an impression on Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz this week — as well as our visitors on Wednesday’s weekly Facebook Live chat.

Iowa State running back David Montgomery gave Iowa's defense fits a year ago in Ames, generating 165 yards from scrimmage (112 rushing, 53 receiving) in the Hawkeyes' 44-41 win.

“I told our guys, I don't know that we'll see a better back this season,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “I don't know who's out there, but we're going to see good players. We always do in our conference. But he's as good a back as you're going to face anywhere in the country. It starts with him.”

At 5-foot-11 and 216 pounds, Montgomery is undoubtedly an NFL prospect. Pro Football Focus’ metrics ranked him as the third-best back in the country last year, when Montgomery gained 1,442 yards from scrimmage — including 165 against Iowa.

I haven’t seen a better back in person than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but Montgomery isn’t far behind. Pro Football Focus’ evaluation said Montgomery tied for the national lead in 2017 with 86 missed tackles forced on his 258 carries.

“Barkley was probably a little more shifty. Montgomery’s more of a physical guy who’s going to bounce off guys,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said, “not that Barkley couldn’t do that.”

Finding the secret to stopping Montgomery would help unlock a fourth straight Hawkeye win in this rivalry.

Gervase pointed out one of the keys: constant defensive motion when pursuing the ball.

“If you stop moving your feet against a guy like him, that’s when you get in trouble,” Gervase said. “Just keep gaining ground on him and trust that if you keep leverage, if you leverage the football well and other guys are around the football, we’re going to get him down.”

Another secret to slowing down Montgomery, which is easier said than done: Make him go sideways, Ferentz said.

“He’s an extremely competitive player. He’s always fighting," Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. "Anytime we can stop him before he really gets started … that’s on us up front.”

Ferentz pointed out that when Montgomery gets going, it energizes the Cyclone team, too. A mark of a great player, Iowa's 20th-year head coach noted.

Just like with Smith, limiting the production of the best opposing player has to be near the top of Iowa’s Week 2 gameplan.

Other stuff worth expanding on from our Facebook Live session:

Topic: How dominant can Iowa's defensive line be?

OK, it’s probably unrealistic to think that Iowa will maintain its pace for five sacks a game — that’d be 65 for a 13-game season, and the program rarely gets past 30. But absolutely, there’s a lot to like with the opening production of Hesse (two sacks), Anthony Nelson (one sack) and A.J. Epenesa (one sack, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries) off the edge.

Iowa State’s perceived weakness is its offensive line. Look for the Cyclones to try to counter that matchup with a lot of short-range passes from super-accurate quarterback Kyle Kempt, who works exclusively out of shotgun formations. It’ll be a tougher challenge for Iowa’s defensive line to get home against Kempt than it was against NIU.

To answer the broader question: I think Iowa will be closer to 40 sacks in 2018 than 30.

Topic: Will we see Amani Jones at middle linebacker Saturday?

After getting pulled in favor of Jack Hockaday after 14 snaps as a starter, it’s a great question.

The answer has two parts. I think Hockaday (a senior) will be Saturday’s starter; I also don’t see Iowa giving up on Jones (a junior). The coaches like him. Ferentz said he’s had a good week of practice. Jones was just too amped up for his first career start.

I’d like to see coaches look for the right opportunity to plug him into Saturday’s game, even if just for one series, and see if he can settle in and show why he was such an impressive player during the entire offseason.

“We're hardly ready to throw him off the boat here,” Ferentz said. “… My guess is he'll be in the lineup at some point.”

Topic: If Ivory Kelly-Martin is out, who is Iowa's third running back?

Kelly-Martin's status is unclear after he suffered a left-ankle injury against Illinois. And we know that redshirt freshman Kyshaun Bryan isn't around; Ferentz said Tuesday that Bryan has taken a leave from the team and would be brought back on the bye week later this month, where Iowa will "see if he's more prepared to practice."

That doesn't sound promising.

Anyway, to answer the question: I don't think Iowa goes past Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young at running back without IKM. The Hawkeyes like their top three, and they won't dig deeper into the depth chart unless the game gets out of hand.

Topic: If Iowa is going to win, what has to go right?

I mentioned stopping Montgomery. But beating the Cyclones, whose five losses a year ago came by an average of 5.0 points, requires a multi-tiered success story.

The Hawkeyes have a chance to get off to a fast start at Kinnick Stadium. This is Iowa State's Week 1 after Saturday's lightning-forced cancellation, and we saw how choppy the Hawkeyes were in the first half of their Week 1. Iowa's offense has a better chance to be crisper from the get-go, especially with tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs back in the lineup.

It'll be a great sign if the Hawkeyes are reeling off four or five yards a carry against a stout Iowa State defensive line. 

And If Iowa can build a 10-point lead, it'll help two-fold. One, it'll likely limit the likelihood that David Montgomery gets a slew of carries. Two, it'll allow Iowa's best position group (the aforementioned defensive line) to attack the quarterback.

Topic: If Iowa loses, what will have gone wrong?

This is quite a stat: During Iowa's three-game winning streak in the Cy-Hawk rivalry, it has committed a total of one turnover (a fumble in 2015). That's zero interceptions and 785 passing yards in three years for Iowa's quarterbacks.

If that figure drastically changes, the Hawkeyes will leave Saturday's game with a 1-1 record. In this year's matchup, there's little margin for error on both sides.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.