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Was UNI The Worst Loss Of The Paul Rhoads Era?

Vote in WRNL's poll! For science!

David Purdy

It's Wednesday. Four days after Iowa State's almost-inexplicable loss to Northern Iowa. And now that fans have had some time to think over that debacle, cooler heads are prevailing and questions are arising. Questions like: How could Iowa State get out-muscled by an FCS team? What exactly is Courtney Messingham doing up there in the coordinator's booth? Which god did Iowa State fans anger, and how may he/she/it be appeased?

Now, the UNI loss last Saturday is far from the first head-scratching loss that fans have witnessed in Paul Rhoads' time as head coach at Iowa State. There have been other disappointing losses in the past four years. Too many, in fact. But most of those losses have had mitigating factors that fans could use to temper their disappointment

Just take a look at this brief list of some of the more nut-crushing losses from Paul Rhoads time at Iowa State, and the ready-made excuses Cyclone fans could use for each loss:

  • 2010 Utah - 68-27: Top-10 team, second year of Paul Rhoads' tenure. Team still raw and under-talented.
  • 2010 Oklahoma - 52-0: See above. Plus, Oklahoma on the road? What ISU team has ever had success there?
  • 2010 Colorado - 34-14: Hangover from crushing overtime loss to Nebraska the previous week. Thin mountain air and excellent weed always makes Boulder a difficult environment for Iowa State.
  • 2010 Missouri - 14-0: Jerome Tiller forced to start in place of an injured Austen Arnaud. ISU fans quickly find out that Tiller is not a Big 12-caliber quarterback.
  • 2011 Texas - 37-14: Team is too keyed up from 3-0 start and bye week, runs into a more talented Texas team hellbent on avenging previous year's loss to ISU.
  • 2011 Missouri - 52-17: Steele Jantz is officially too mindfucked to play a road game. Time for a new quarterback.
  • 2011 Rutgers - 27-13: Iowa State's playing in Rutgers' backyard. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman's too busy picking out furniture for his new office at Ohio State to do much game preparation.
  • 2012 Texas Tech - 24-13: Can we please end the Steele Jantz experiment now, please?
  • 2012 Tulsa Pt. II - 31-17: Sam Richardson comes down with the flu. Plus, it's hard to beat a team twice in one season, especially when they have three weeks to prepare.

But last Saturday's loss was different. This couldn't be explained away by the factors that usually contribute to Iowa State's losses, like lack of talent, lack of time to prepare, injuries, depth, difficult road environment, etc.

Talent? Iowa State has a young team, but they are bigger on both the offensive and defensive lines, have more talent at the skill positions and have a better quarterback. The only position that's comparable talent-wise is at running back, and Iowa State goes five deep at that position. ISU has the talent to steamroll UNI.

Lack of time to prepare? It's the first game of the season. Both teams are as ready and as healthy as they'll be all season.

Depth? Iowa State has 22 more players on scholarship, and the game was at Jack Trice Stadium. The heat on Saturday alone should have given Iowa State a decided advantage with their depth. UNI should've been the team to look gassed at the end of the game, not Iowa State.

Unfortunately, Iowa State lost due to preparation and coaching. Iowa State brought a pillow to a knife fight last Saturday, and things got about as stabby as you'd expect. 400-thread count Egyptian Cotton may make excellent bedding material, but it's pretty useless against a determined opponent that wants to slash your throat open.

And that's especially disturbing, because it doesn't fit the narrative that Cyclone fans have been telling themselves about Paul Rhoads-coached teams. In 2009, Rhoads inherited a poorly coached, poorly conditioned, poorly developed group of players from Gene Chizik; a CEO with so little invested in Ames that he couldn't be bothered to stick around for more than two years.

But Rhoads took that group and through solid preparation and a focus on the football fundamentals, took them to a bowl game and won it in his inaugural season. That coaching job, coupled with Rhoads' passion for Iowa State, the Nebraska upset and the bowl win, bought the coach a lot of leeway with fans. That's Rhoads' narrative as a coach of Iowa State: Passion from the coach and players, preparation, effort and a focus on the fundamentals.

None of those things seemed present last Saturday, which makes the loss to UNI all that much tougher to swallow. That fundamentally sound defense based around tackling? Non-existent. David Johnson ran through arm-tackles at will on his way to 125 yards and two touchdowns on his first six carries. Preparation? See David Johnson's stat-line above. Iowa State had no answer for Johnson in the first half, and the coaches seemed completely unprepared for Northern Iowa's main offensive threat. The defense only stiffened once Wally Burnham had finally seen enough of Jevohn Miller's matador impression at linebacker.

But Iowa State wasn't sloppy offensively; they won the turnover margin 2-0. Sam Richardson was efficient at quarterback, going 22-32 for 242 yards and two touchdowns.

Richardson also had 74 yards rushing. On 21 carries. The other four running backs combined for a grand total of 94 yards on 23 carries. Just eight of those runs came in the second half of the game. This is not a recipe for offensive success, especially when your team is self-described as a "running team."

Unfortunately, Iowa State just got straight up BEAT last Saturday. Northern Iowa came in more focused, executed their game plan and walked away with a victory. In fact, the game should've been an even bigger disaster than it was. If David Johnson hadn't inexplicably fumbled on ISU's one-yard line with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter, Iowa State wouldn't have even had a chance to run that sorry-ass excuse for a two-minute drill at the end of the game.

There's nothing that Iowa State can point to in last Saturday's loss, nothing to say, "There. That one factor meant the odds were stacked against Iowa State before the game even started." Fans can talk about Tom Farniok's injury, and that played a role in the loss. But Iowa State has done an excellent job recruiting offensive linemen over the past four years. A serviceable replacement should be available when a starter goes down.

Perhaps most concerning are the implications of this loss. Iowa State fans are a cautious group by nature, but by the fifth year of Paul Rhoads' tenure most had become optimistic enough to believe the Cyclones could beat a goddamn FCS team at home, even in a rebuilding year. Fan support is as high right now as it's been in many, many years. The stadium is packed, donations to the athletic department are up, 2014 recruiting is looking way better than past years and casual fans are jumping on board the Iowa State express.

So when ISU goes out and lays a dinosaur egg in the first game of the season, it's deflating. Will the casual fans keep showing up to fill the stadium? Will donations stay at a high level? Will recruits stay committed? Iowa State is in a really tenuous position right now. Keep excitement and momentum going this year by at least remaining competitive in a rebuilding year, and ISU is poised to reach a level they haven't been in years. If Cyclone football completely collapses and takes a giant step back in 2013? Well... It might be time to settle back down for another few years of mediocrity.

All of this raises the question: Is this the worst loss of Paul Rhoads' career as head coach at Iowa State? If not the worst, it's certainly in the top three. But what say you? Make your voice heard in the poll below!