If you're like me you watched the first drive of the Tulsa game and immediately cringed at what appeared to be the same old Cyclone offense in 2013 start with a solid run opened up by a hold and then a scramble by Sam Richardson that was just short on 3rd and long. Flashbacks to the Iowa game ensued and you wonder if the wheels were even on enough to fall off.
Then Tulsa went three and out and something magical happened: Iowa State scored on their next possession.
That second drive included two 3rd down conversions and three runs by Wimberly that totaled 45 yards. Jeff Woody's one yard plunge was set up by Wimberly's third rush that went for 35 yards. Iowa State broke tendency and threw on first down to set up the run and it showed as two of Wimberly's runs came on 1st downs that had been previously set up by the pass. Then things got weird.
Believe it or not, a lot did, but this is probably more of a product of a weak Tulsa team than the light bulb coming on for the offense. No doubt Tom Farniok's return helped and it was obvious on drives he was in how much he meant to both facets of the game. His calls at the line are one thing, but it's his blocking on the run that is really noticed. He's just quicker off the ball than Ben Loth and does a great job getting outside and at the very least getting a hand on his man.
Quenton Bundrage faced a lot of double teams and help over the top and the newly minted possession receiver of this offense, Tad Ecby, responded with six catches for 59 yards, which was enough to keep Tulsa honest.
Richardson still doesn't look 100% healthy, and might not be this entire season, but he was accurate if his feet were still. On plays he scrambled his accuracy suffered and it makes sense as a quarterback is more prone to throw off his back foot when scrambling. The same back foot that happens to own the bad ankle Richardson is playing on. Richardson is currently 36th in the country in yards per game at 252 but unfortunately ranks 82nd nationally in yards per attempt at 6.8. When you combine those two stats above you can see this offense isn't very explosive, but...
Can Iowa State Win with a Slower Tempo?
Absolutely they can. One thing that is admirable about Bill Snyder is that despite all this hype about no huddle, hurry up offenses he stuck to his guns at Kansas State and fielded an offense the past two years that was both explosive and physical. Iowa State won the time of possession battle by 11 minutes and is now 4-1 under Messingham when winning time of possession. Contrast this to 3-8 under Messingham when losing the battle (albeit the Kansas win only had an 8 second deficit).
Iowa State was methodical on Thursday with 44 rushing attempts (including sacks) and that included the benchmark of 30 carries between the running backs. Led by Wimberly the backs averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Obviously part of winning time of possession is converting on 3rd down, which Iowa State was 8-18, or 44%. While not great it's better than the 39% they were averaging going into the game. The point here is that with a gimpy quarterback there is some merit to slowing down the tempo and pounding the rock. The more this team learns to have a successful ground game without Richardson the better they'll be over the final weeks of the season.
What About the Defense?
The defense put in a workmanlike effort on Thursday and generated four turnovers with all four of them directly involving Cody Green. David Irving was once again phenomenal in the middle and his disruption is something teams are going to have to start planning for. On Tulsa's first third down Irving broke through the middle and forced a Green rollout which resulted in him short hopping the throw to his receiver. It's plays like this that don't show up on the stat sheet but make all the difference.
That said, the coverage still needs some improvement. Once Tulsa started shoring up the middle they left guys like Nick Kron and Cory Morrissey available to rush but neither was quick enough to get to Green with any consistency. This left obvious holes in the defense to be found and the two biggest culprits are Jared Brackens and Jeremiah George. Brackens has shown a general weakness in coverage the entire season that has been masked by his ability in the run game, but George has previously shown himself to be adept in coverage. It just seems he's still trying to do too much out there to cover for the relative youth around and in front of him.
The secondary itself had a solid game even if little Sam Richardson let himself get embarrassed in the end zone by muffing an interception and having it directly result in a touchdown. Charlie Rogers didn't see the field until late but came away with an interception. It would not surprise me to see him more involved in the Nickel package in place of Brackens as the season wears on. He's just better in space than Brackens.
Luke Knott continues his upward trajectory and looks just like a smaller version of his brother all the way down to the jumping style he employed to tip a pass of Green's in the 3rd quarter. Wally Burnham is making use of the quickness in the linebacking corps and bringing more blitzes and even some aggressive scrapes on run downs to stop the zone read. If Major Applewhite continues to try to run his quarterbacks on Thursday it will be interesting to see how Burnham covers it.
Ok, so What Didn't Work?
Tulsa had the aforementioned four turnovers and Iowa State only had 14 points to show for it despite starting three of those possessions in Tulsa's territory. If you take out Jeff Woody's somewhat garbage time touchdown after Rogers' interception you get only 7 points on 3 turnovers, which is unbelievably unacceptable. Iowa State should not have had to rally during the two minute drill to tie the game at the end of the first half as they should have already had close to 20 on the board, which leads me to my next point.
At what point in time does Rhoads decide to eschew the kicking game from 40 yards out and start having Messingham call plays to set up for 4th and short? At least Cole Netten's kicks stayed inside the stadium on his first two attempts but somewhere down the line you have to realize the kicking game is a liability and if the odds are favoring a miss you might as well gamble on 4th down.
Messingham had a solid second drive put together but after started to go back to the conventional 1st and 2nd down runs, which carried over into the 3rd quarter until Tulsa kept hanging around. I thought he did a good job setting up Tulsa early with the early down passes and kept them even keel late when trying to close out the game.
Still, I would like to see more variation on the outside passing to keep teams soft in the middle. Bubble screens are one thing but mixing up those bubble screens with tunnel screens will keep corners from coming downhill too fast to bust up the screen. In his defense he did appear to call a few of these plays and they were just executed poorly. Hitches are a key here too. If a team is playing soft coverage a few quick hitters will start to pull that defense up. This is just as much on Messingham as it is on Richardson identifying the coverage. A guy like Bundrage is enough of a home run threat to draw soft coverage, and his inconsistency is so maddening a few quick catches early in a game might go a long way to getting him playing well for all four quarters.
Overall I felt the offense got the game they needed to gain some confidence but left enough on the field that there is something to work with in preparation for Texas. But if some of these issues continue into Big XII play then you have to wonder if the problem is systemic.
Now the Real Question: Is a Bowl Game Still Possible?
Yes, but it's a stretch. Iowa State will have to win five conference games for the first time since 2000 and do so in a round robin schedule that sends them on the road five times in the next nine weeks. Two wins in October will build some momentum towards a favorable November home slate. Sweep both TCU and Kansas at home in November and all you need is a split with Kansas State and West Virginia to get to six wins.
The only problem with this thinking is Rhoads is 4-10 in regular season games played after November 1st.
No doubt these next two weeks are key in getting to a bowl game with a questionable Texas team visiting on Thursday night and a road date with Texas Tech following. Mark my words: If Iowa State wins in Lubbock on October 12th (11:00 AM, FS1) then this team finds themselves playing in the postseason.