September Saturdays are reserved for optimism, even for Iowa State football fans who are used to their team quickly relegating their preseason hopes to pure fantasy. That pristine schedule, not yet littered with lopsided losses, presents an opportunity for the eventual, inevitable breakthrough win.
So it was odd Saturday when I turned on the game, with only two games down, that my optimism wasn’t geared toward winning, or even competing. I was looking, with a pathetic enthusiasm, for positive yardage, first downs and a coherent game plan. This is the sad tale of Iowa State football in its current state.
What Went Right
The Cyclones lost by three touchdowns and only briefly held their own against a TCU team that hasn’t been all that impressive. So it’s important to remember, this is all relative. But there were, on occasion, some things that could be considered improvement, progress, or merely competent, which is a far cry from what we saw in Iowa City. Let’s start with the running game.
After rushing for just 177 yards in two games against UNI and Iowa, Iowa State was able to open some holes in Week 3. Sophomore standout Mike Warren saw some early success between the tackles on his way to season highs in carries (23) and yards (95). Not only was this progress for the offensive line, but also for offensive coordinator, Tom Manning, who executed a more focused game plan. The Cyclones ended the day with just 138 yards on the ground, but showed signs of life.
The Iowa State special teams unit enjoyed an all-around, solid day. Colin Downing showed out for Punter U, adding a rugby-style punt to his repertoire while keeping the ball away from TCU’s dangerous return man, KaVontae Turpin. Of Downing’s eight punts, which averaged 43.9 yards, only one was returned.
One of the great advantages of getting waxed on a weekly basis is the opportunity to find your best kickoff return man. That appears to be freshman running back, Kene Nwangwu, who flashed his well-advertised speed, averaging 33 yards on three returns with a long of 44. Given the expected volume, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him break one before the season is over.
And to top it off, Cole Netten made two short field goals, playing an integral part in Iowa State’s dramatic cover of the 25-point spread (depending on your vendor).
And finally, perhaps the most important progress we saw Saturday was the lack of self-inflicted wounds. The Cyclones had ZERO turnovers, which combined with the improved running game, allowed them to win the time-of-possession battle. And while that isn’t always indicative of superior play, it does reflect the stylistic shift that many Cyclones fans envisioned when Matt Campbell was hired. Iowa State also was only flagged seven times for 44 yards after racking up 19 penalties for 162 yards in the first two weeks combined. It’s something. We hope.
What Went Wrong
Despite the mostly positive feelings coming out of Saturday’s loss, there remains the fact that Iowa State is still years away from a bowl game. The talent level and depth are as bad as I’ve seen since 2003, or worse, the Jim Walden-era Cyclones. But that’s the hand that this coaching staff was dealt, so as we bitch about our team, let’s keep it in the proper context.
Iowa State still doesn’t have a Big 12 quarterback. Joel Lanning has been, at times, adequate. But more often, he’s been a glorified fullback with an impressive arm. Lanning showed some moxy, leading Iowa State to its only two touchdown drives. But his tough running is too often overshadowed by a stunning lack of accuracy and touch. You can point the finger at the guys catching the ball (and we will), but Lanning continues to make routine plays more difficult than required.
I liked Campbell and Manning’s rotation at QB, but Jacob Park failed to separate himself from Lanning as many had hoped. Park clearly has the physical tools to play at a high level, but he was overwhelmed by a TCU secondary that had given up six touchdowns in two weeks. Until Iowa State finds a QB that can make quick, accurate reads, it will be at the mercy of its usually undermanned offensive line.
While the quarterbacks were average to awful, the receivers were arguably worse, especially early when Iowa State was still in the game. Allen Lazard only had one reception for 8 yards, and a couple of drops from Dondre Daley and Marchie Murdock stalled promising (remember, context) drives. More than that, it seems as if Cyclone receivers are once again failing to create separation, leading to hesitant quarterbacks and drive-busting sacks.
If you’ve watched an Iowa State football game in the past three years, you’ve seen it. The opposing quarterback lofts a ball to his 6’4” receiver 40-50 yards down the field. Two Iowa State defenders are in the area, each with their helmet planted directly in the belly button of the receiver. The receiver, calmly, casually reels in the pass as the Cyclone defenders drag him to the ground, never having seen the ball.
Surely this isn’t a technique that is being taught in practice. And I suspect it comes mostly from a lack of talent, but nothing drives me more insane than seeing a defensive back with their back to the ball. Until Iowa State defensive backs turn to make a play, I’ll expect opposing offenses to take a shot on nearly every third and long.
It was improved, but still terrible. They avoid failing due to an improved run game and not handing the ball to the other team.
They gave up too many big plays and failed to create any turnovers. The linebackers are a disaster.
Special Teams: A+
Like a beautifully played role in an Adam Sandler movie, the special teams unit was mesmerizing. Bravo!
Next Up: San Jose State