At the halfway point in the season, Iowa State is 4-2. Two losses in the Big 12 conference to ranked opponents, two losses by an average of 8.5 points. Owners of a top-25 BCS ranking for the first time in school history. Pretty good so far. And while Iowa State's offense is currently struggling, the defense has shown that it can slow down the video game offenses of the Big 12, holding Texas Tech and Kansas State well below their scoring and yardage averages this year. But can Iowa State stop a Big 12 opponent that's focused on revenge?
The revenge factor is always a little overblown. It makes for a compelling media narrative, because it allows writers and pundits to talk about interesting human emotions like anger and desire, rather than zone blocking and blitz packages. And shit, who wants to talk about THAT?
But it's a legitimate concern for Iowa State heading into Saturday's game in Stillwater. Throughout Paul Rhoads' time at Iowa State, the Cyclones have been very good at pulling surprise upsets when least expected. Not so good at winning when taking a team's best shot after beating said team the previous year.
In 2010, Nebraska came to Jack Trice Stadium hungry for revenge after Iowa State embarrassed them at home in a 9-7 barnburner the previous year. Nebraska was without their quarterback and had to make do with human weeble-wobble Cody Green, but still managed to escape with a one point win in overtime.
Texas came into Jack Trice Stadium in much the same way in 2011. Angered by an embarrassing loss to Iowa State at home the previous year, the Longhorns came to Ames focused on burning down Jack Trice Stadium and pissing on the flames. Unlike Nebraska in 2010, Texas stomped the shit out of the Cyclones. It was ugly.
So far this year, ISU has faced Texas Tech, yet another Big 12 team hungry for revenge. Texas Tech had a lot of pent-up aggression after the complete domination by the Cyclones the previous two years and again, Iowa State wasn't up to the task; falling to the Red Raiders 24-13 at home.
This Saturday, Iowa State will probably face their most focused opponent this year. Mike Gundy won't admit it, but it has to kill him that the Cyclones spoiled his perfect season last year. Oklahoma State had a legitimate shot at the national title game until they played Iowa State, a chance to win a championship at a program not known for success. And Gundy knows Oklahoma State's history. As a former QB for the Cowboys, he knows how tantalizing close he was to bringing home a national championship to his alma mater.
Iowa State crushed Mike Gundy and every Oklahoma State fans' dream last November. So yeah, the fans, coaches and players are all probably just a bit pissed off at the Cyclones.
But will it matter? Oklahoma State has the gaudy offensive stats on their side, just like they did last year. Unfortunately, this year they don't have a QB nearing retirement age or Justin Blackmon. What they do have is a maybe-injured true freshman quarterback in Wes Lunt and a career backup in JW Walsh to go along with a banged up receiving corps.
Oklahoma State also hasn't beaten anybody of note. Savannah State, UL-Lafayette and Kansas are a combined 5-13 this year. Iowa State's four victories have come against teams that are a combined 18-7, and the Cyclones two losses are against teams that are 11-1. So Iowa State has been tested against good teams, and beaten good teams this year.
And while Oklahoma State surely wants revenge, Iowa State has more than enough motivation in this game. Paul Rhoads talks all the time about never getting too high or low as a team, just being consistent and working every game, every play. It's given Iowa State remarkable resiliency over the years, as the Cyclones have been able to bounce back from blowout losses to win big games.
Iowa State also needs to prove that last year's victory against Oklahoma State wasn't a fluke. The ISU athletic department has gotten a lot of mileage out of the win; selling game DVDs, making the after-game celebration the schedule poster this year, promoting Paul Rhoads post-game locker room speech. But much of the outside world still sees the game as a freak occurrence, attributable to a lapse in focus or a tragic plane crash.
Iowa State fans know these excuses are bullshit. The Cyclones just need to prove it to the rest of the world.
What does it all mean? Is Iowa State ready to take a team's best shot? Can the Cyclones go on the road against a quality opponent that is hell-bent on avenging a crushing loss from the previous season? They haven't been ready in the past, but this year's team is different from past teams. Overall, there have been less mental errors. More focus. If the offense can get back on track against one of the poorer defenses in the country, Iowa State can walk away with a win and their second Big 12 victory this year.