Blum: The Season of wait and see
In the summer of 1995, my family and I went on a vacation to Colorado. This was a classic example of kids from suburbs experiencing the real outdoors for the first time. On our first day in Estes Park, my mom suggested my brothers and I try horse-back riding. At the time, the extent of my "riding" experience was on those quarter controlled mechanical machines outside of Wal-Mart and a miniature camel at the zoo. Now, I found myself getting instruction from some rancher in the middle of the mountains with little idea of what was in store for me.
I hopped on the horse and inserted my feet in the straps as instructed, inadvertently kicking the horse in the process. The beast took off like Usain Bolt at the Olympics. I have never been so frightened in my 11 year life, holding on with everything I had. The horse sprinted for a solid 30 seconds as I contemplated if this was how I was going to die. Finally, the dastardly horse chilled the heck out and slowed down while the rancher caught up to aid. It was too late, I wanted off. I preferred my Game Gear. I was not ready to be an outdoorsman.
The 2013 Iowa State football season began in similar fashion. We all convinced ourselves that the young and green Cyclones were ready to ride. When UNI and running back David Johnson took off in game one, the Cyclones were clearly startled. Injuries mounted and mistakes amplified. When it appeared Iowa State had finally slowed down the beast, the non-fumble against Texas sucker punched any momentum, more injuries followed and the next thing you knew Baylor was hanging 70. All hopes for a bowl game were deep-sixed. Iowa State needed off the horse to reassess.
And reassess they did. A program that prided itself on staff continuity in the first five years under Paul Rhoads went back to the drawing board. Entering 2014, six of the nine position coaches are brand new. And a seventh (Todd Sturdy) switched position groups from wide receivers to quarterbacks. It is a drastic, and hopefully, much needed change of course for the "All In" era of Cyclone football.
It is because of this freshness and last year's travails that has the fan-base equal parts optimistic and pessimistic. Therein lies the rub for 2014; the season of wait and see.
Enter the Mangenius. No individual has inspired more hope for the 2014 season than former Kansas head coach and new Iowa State offensive coordinator, Mark Mangino. Mangino has been discussed so exhaustively amongst the Cyclone Nation that it almost seems he has been around for years. The man's credentials are quite impressive. The world focuses on the hard-to-believe fact that he won an Orange Bowl with Kansas in 2007-- a feat that gets more unbelievable by the year. But perhaps a more useful piece of info in regards to Iowa State is his consistent success in producing points. Yes, the 2007 KU team with Todd Reesing at the helm was an offensive juggernaut, but Mangino engineered offenses with less than NFL talent to a string of above average seasons.
Here are Mangino's last four seasons at Kansas and their rank nationally in each category:
2009- 425 yards (25th nationally), 29.5 points (42nd)
2008- 432 yards (22nd), 33.3 points (22nd)
2007- 480 yards (8th). 43 points (2nd)
2006- 374 (33rd), 29 points (29th)
That is four straight years averaging more than 29 points per game in a time where offenses weren't as jacked up on speed. For what it's worth, Iowa State hasn't averaged 29 or more points since 1976. Mangino gets to work with an Iowa State unit that returns pretty much every meaningful starter and a few extra bodies. That's the good news.
The bad news, the Iowa State offense was more or less awful last season. This is best illustrated in the following stat. Prepare yourselves accordingly.
According to this Football Outsiders page, Iowa State did not get a single first down on 49 percent of their possessions in 2013. Yes, about half the time they ran three plays and had to punt or turned the ball over before accumulating 10 yards. That put them 123rd in the country in that stat. Only Miami (Ohio) was worse and Miami (OH) was a glorified high school team last season. The college football average is right around 30 percent of drives end in three and out; Iowa State had half.
It all starts with quarterback play. The Cyclones have not been accurate enough passing the ball under Rhoads and that has been the biggest Jenga piece that has unraveled the entire operation. The target number for an average quarterback is 60 percent completion. Seventy-one of the 123 starting quarterbacks in Division one averaged 60 percent or better on their throws in 2013. The nation's leader was at 73 percent. Iowa State quarterbacks combined to complete 56 percent a year ago. During the Rhoads regime, the Cyclone quarterbacks have never completed 60 percent or better.
Whether it is Sam Richardson, Grant Rohach or insert quarterback here, that position needs to be at least average for the Cyclones to grab a seat at the Big 12 offensive dinner table.
In my opinion, the Iowa State offense has its most talent at running back and wide receiver/tight end than they have had in nearly 15 years. Granted that history isn't exactly sparkling, but there are a number of men who have proven in Big 12 play that they can make plays. E.J. Bibbs, Quenton Bundrage, Aaron Wimberly, DeVondrick Nealy and Jarvis West have all done it before. Mix in consistent catchers like Tad Ecby, P.J. Harris and the new, flashier names like D'Vario Montgomery and Allen Lazard and it's strange having a potential wealth at wide receiver; a position group that hasn't had an NFL player drafted since 1985.
Simply put, Iowa State has to make a leap on offense this season. A new leader in Mangino, a healthy offensive line and a variety of play-makers gives hope. Now let's see it on the field.
Staring at the defensive depth chart for long periods of time can incite a sense of paranoia. There are a lot of question marks returning from a defense that rode on the struggle bus for much of 2013. The strongest indicator of success in college football, other than quarterback play, is rush defense.
Of the top 20 teams in rush defense in college football in 2013, 14 had nine or more wins. Only one of those top 20 had a losing record. Want a good defense? Stop the run.
Iowa State did not stop the run in 2013. The Cyclones finished 112th in the nation in rush defense in 2013, allowing opponents to scamper for 230 yards per game. Iowa State gave up a monstrous 5.35 yards per carry. For those who want context, Troy Davis averaged 5.36 yards per carry in his career.
Wally Burnham and company aren't dense. They realize even in the supposedly "pass-happy" Big 12, if a squad can't stop the run, everything else is irrelevant. The pessimist sees the huge unknowns on the interior of the defensive line and new middle line-backer and thinks, "Well, this is going to be a nightmare again." It is the biggest concern entering the year. With 1980's style offenses like North Dakota State, K-State and Iowa the first three games of the season, the Cyclones run defense unit will be thrown into the fray off the bat. At this point, I'd like to give you some confidence that the Cyclones can improve in this area, but I have no idea. It's a cross your fingers and hope for the best situation.
One area where the Iowa State defense has always been exemplary under Rhoads and Burnham is forcing turnovers. Iowa State finished middle of the pack in the nation by creating 21 turnovers in 2013; it was the fifth straight year the opportunistic defense created 20 or more turnovers. Only North Carolina and Oregon have also created 20 or more turnovers each of the past five years. Burnham's crew could help themselves and the offense immensely by capitalizing on a few more mishaps this season and turning them into short fields/touchdowns. Although they forced 21 turnovers, the defense scored zero touchdowns in 2013. In fact, the average interception and fumble return was a mere yard. The longest interception return of the season was 11 yards.
Contrast this to 2012, when Iowa State scored three defensive touchdowns and accumulated over 300 yards in interception returns. Those extra yards can be a massive difference. Big plays on defense are often cyclical, perhaps 2014 could flip in Iowa State's favor. The coaches have been very high on the ball skills of new safeties Kamari Cotton-Moya and T.J. Mutcherson, a few pick sixes would go a long way.
I am still a believer in Wally "The Wizard" Burnham. If the offense can give the defense some adequate rest and the youth that got exposed on defense can come of age, we shall see if the Wizard has a few more magic tricks in store.
Walking around the football complex the last few weeks, I was struck by the change in demeanor by the coaches and players. There was an energy and vibrancy that lacked at times a year ago. Now that's not the end all-be-all of success. If all it took was positivity, Mister Rogers would be an NFL Hall-of Famer. But the attitude felt genuine. Iowa State hit the refresh button on their football program after a disappointing 2013. Paul Rhoads has proven in the past, the best moments can come when nobody expects it. Well, outside of Ames, few are expecting much. Time to see if the Cyclones can hop aboard that horse and ride again.