The Drive with Heather Burnside and Sean Roberts

The Drive with Heather Burnside and Sean Roberts

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Cyclones head to Memphis for AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Iowa State v Cincinnati

Photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

The Iowa State Cyclones (7-5, 6-3 in Big 12) and the Memphis Tigers (9-3, 6-2 AAC) will turn back the clock to 2017 as they kick off the 65th AutoZone Liberty Bowl this Friday at 2:30 p.m. It has been six years since the last time these two battled in a back-and-forth matchup and with the way the Tigers and Cyclones finished their respective seasons, there’s no reason not to believe this should be a nail-biter again.

2017 was Matt Campbell’s second season leading the Cyclones and one could argue his most impressive outing coming off a 3-9 record a year before then taking down the Tigers in a 21-20 shootout. This season he leads a team out of the tunnel that was forced to mature faster than any other program and endure unprecedented adversity with 21 underclassmen playing in every game this season. 2023 was set to become a nauseating season for Cyclone fans and with the few upperclassmen taking on the pressure and the masterclass coaching from Campbell, first-year offensive coordinator Nate Scheelhaase and Jon Heacock earned Iowa State their 18th Bowl appearance.

Here is all you need to know before Friday’s game.

Scouting Memphis  

Memphis ended their season winning five of their final six games all by 6+ points and have all sorts of talent on the offensive side of the ball. The Tigers’ identity falls onto the large shoulders of Seth Henigan who guided Memphis into the top 15 in the country for passing yards with an AAC-leading 3,519 yards, 301.7 per game along with his 28 touchdowns. Henigan finished the year with four games throwing for 3+ touchdowns.

Henigan is leading an offense that is as talented as they come with two receivers over 800 yards and 6+ touchdowns (Roc Taylor and DeMeer Blankumsee) and on paper the two teams that the Tigers relate most to are the Oklahoma Sooners and TCU. Iowa State’s elite secondary struggled against the Sooner air raid but favored well in a get-right game against the Horned Frogs.

This is where the Cyclones have an edge. Ranking sixth in the nation and second in the Big 12 with 16 interceptions this team can force elite offenses to look inept. For the Tigers to come off their home field with a victory they will need to run the ball. Passing is the backbone, and the ground game is secondary. Blake Watson is a talented running back who sits second in the AAC with 1,045 yards rushing and a conference-leading 14 touchdowns, but despite his accolades Memphis finished 9th in the conference with only 150.8 rushing yards a game.

Freshman of the year and new face of the backfield 

At the start of the season if a fan said the name Rocco Becht the correct response would be “Who?” After beating out the talented true freshman JJ Kohl, Becht took over the starting role and seamlessly became the leader of the offense. First-year offensive coordinator Scheelhaase expanded the offense after a few disappointing weeks and molded Becht out of the “game-manager” role into a game-changer.

Becht now takes the field with some impressive hardware after being named the “Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year” finishing the season with a school-record 20 touchdowns and 2,674 passing yards (most by a freshman breaking Brock Purdy’s records). All eyes are rightfully so keen on Becht’s playmaking ability, but the reason for the easy transition falls into the hands of the offensive line. Iowa State has only allowed 12 total sacks which is eight nationally and second in the Big 12.

The last time the Cyclones took the field was a snowy offensive explosion against the Kansas State Wildcats during Thanksgiving weekend. Some changes have been made to the roster since then. Cartevious Norton and Eli Sanders changed the look of the backfield as both announced they were transferring and would not play in the KSU and Bowl games.

Abu Sama III filled in exceptionally well with three touchdowns all over 60 yards and 276 total yards the last time out showcasing the reason why Cyclone fans should feel hopeful for the future.


Memphis is not a terrible defensive team but not great by any standards either. The Tigers have forced 11 fumbles and interceptions this season but struggled to apply pressure to quarterbacks. With exceptional blocking by the Iowa State lineman along with a balanced offensive attack I see the Cyclones winning the AutoZone Liberty Bowl 31-21.  

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