The term "must win" is wildly overused in sports, but there may not be a better way to describe the situation Iowa State found itself in going into Saturday against the Jayhawks. When you consider where the Cyclones were and what now lies ahead, this was a game that quite simply needed to be won — and it needed to be won convincingly.
When time expired Saturday, Iowa State had put on arguably its most well-rounded performance in well over a calendar year, which is something fans and players alike desperately needed. There are signs of life, confidence and discernible progress in Ames, but we can all agree to yank back on the reins a bit until the effort we saw against Kansas is duplicated against, well, a team other than Kansas.
That being said, it was a good weekend for the cardinal-and-cardinal (sweet duds, right?). Plenty went well, a few things went wrong, and we'll spell it all out for you.
What Went Well
Offense. More often than not in the Big 12, and particularly in a Mark Mangino offense, your rushing attack is the "two" in the one-two punch. Your tailback is the supporting actor to his quarterback's star performer role. But Mike Warren has established himself as a highly effective bell cow running back, something we haven't seen since Alexander Robinson carried the ball 434 times for over 2,000 yards and 15 TD in his junior and senior seasons. Warren, a redshirt freshman lest we forget, was good for 175 yards on 18 carries (a 9.7 YPC average) and two scores. He's an impeccable combination of speed, vision and playmaking ability, and it more than showed on Saturday.
Sam Richardson finished the day 27/37 for 269 yards and three scores (one on the ground) and was at his best utilizing middle of the field. We saw a handful of unsuccessful screens (and one stellar bubble screen to Jauan Wesley), three passes to tight ends (really!) and the ever-popular double reverse scramble-pass that got called back, but for the most part the passing game clicked when Richardson had time and could find a wideout getting good separation. Allen Lazard, D'Vario Montgomery and Wesley each had plays of 30 yards or longer in this one, the former two with a touchdowns apiece.
Defense. Iowa State had five sacks on the day, giving them 14 for the year — a number they didn't hit until the final week of the season in 2014. The sack mamba himself, Dale Pierson, is the clear-cut leader of this front seven although Willy Harvey got to both Montell Cozart and backup QB Ryan Willis on Saturday. Pierson, who tallied yet another sack of his own, is now up to six on the year — all of them solo — good for 2nd in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah (6.5 through five games).
Jay Jones was also everywhere. By halftime, Jones was responsible for a tackle for loss, a key pass breakup and a couple of huge hits at the line of scrimmage. He assisted a 3-4 defense that continually found ways to make stops in the backfield, with Demond Tucker and even Jhaustin Thomas seeing a ton of action there. We also saw several key one-on-one pass breakups from guys like Jomal Wiltz, Bryan Peavy and Kamari Cotton-Moya. This secondary through four games has helped Iowa State own the Big 12's 2nd best pass defense at 194.8 yards per game.
Special Teams. After missing a 28-yard chip shot on the Cyclones' first trip down the field, Cole Netten was able to regain enough confidence to hit from 34 amid a chorus of boos on the very next drive.
Return coverage was also outstanding. Even with a Big 12-worst four touchbacks, Iowa State still leads the conference in net kickoff return average. Jake Rhoads even got in on some positive action with a late muffed punt recovery.
What Went Wrong
Offense. Sam Richardson fared well in the open field, picking up decent yardage on both zone reads and broken plays, but in the pocket he appeared timid at times. It's been an issue since week one, and I'm having a hard time attributing it to anything besides his own indecisiveness at this point. With Warren now able to keep opposing defenses honest and a host of big bodied receivers to throw to, things have got to start clicking sooner. Richardson was also on the hook for two interceptions, one taken back for six.
Defense. Tackling. Paul Rhoads harped on it during his halftime interview and it didn't appear to change. Also a glaring weakness since week one (and every season since Jake Knott and A.J. Klein), sideline-to-sideline speed and route efficiency is causing a lot of problems in the open field. We're picking nits here, because I think the entire unit is playing well beyond their collective abilities through four games, but we simply saw far too many big plays allowed to a Kansas team that doesn't typically make them.
Special Teams. You can't really call it a problem quite yet, but Netten has failed to lower anyone's blood pressure when it comes to Iowa State's kicking game. Colin Downing averaged just 35.4 yards on five punts, somehow still below his season average. Again, it's not yet a liability because good coverage by the bomb squad tends to frequently to bail him out, but it's been underwhelming to say the least.
Special Teams: C+
And we'll see you next week for tacos.