Blum: No More Roller Coasters

If college football were an amusement park, last season’s Iowa State team was the most terrifyingly exciting roller-coaster around. This year they aim to be more like the ferris wheel – steady, but effective.

From the first snap a year ago, Paul Rhoads’ club was a hangover-inducing firestorm – for the good and bad. They were either escaping games with prodigious comebacks (UNI, Iowa, UConn, Oklahoma State), getting severely humbled by conference foes in games that were thought to be “winnable” (Texas, Mizzou, A&M), putting together the most dominant performance in Cyclone Big 12 history (Texas Tech) or dramatically running out of gas in the final stages (K-State). Only a handful of games went “by the book.”

In FOUR of Iowa State’s SIX wins in 2011, they were tied or trailed in the last four minutes of the 4th quarter. That is remarkable and also induced one of my friends to suggest a certain antacid company should change their name to “Rhoadlaids.” That friend got a courtesy chuckle and extended eye-roll.

Prior to those four comebacks, the Cyclones had just four last minute come from behind wins in the previous 18 years.

2004 @ Baylor — Stevie Hicks took a Bret Meyer option pitch into the end-zone with 41 seconds remaining for a 26-25 win.

2004 @ K-State — The Cyclones scored three remarkable touchdowns in the final three minutes to beat the Wildcats 37-23.

2006 vs. UNI — Meyer found Jon Davis in the corner of the end-zone with 1:05 remaining to take a 28-27 lead that would stand.

2007 vs. Iowa — The “Shaggy” game. Bret Culbertson connected on a 28-yard field goal with one second remaining. Iowa State won 15-13.

The Cyclones showed a penchant for the dramatic but history shows relying on last second heroics again is a dangerous proposition.

Looking strictly at numbers, it was a feat the Cyclones were bowl-eligible a year ago. Iowa State was the only BCS school to finish in the bottom 25 of total defense (95th) and the lower half of total offense (60th) and make a bowl game.

Not to mention, the Cyclones were tied for dead last in the entire country in turnovers with a startling 35 turnovers lost. As Johnny Orr would say, “Whooo EEE, that’s not good coach!”

You may be reading the above info and becoming discouraged…don’t. The fact Paul Rhoads and crew found a way to manufacture wins through those arduous numbers is a positive. Turn those stats on their head and this team may be in for a quietly effective 2012.

The stunning finishes in 2011 were often the result of self-inflicted errors earlier in the game. Eighteen of the 35 Cyclone turnovers were due to lost fumbles – a very correctable mishap. It is no mystery the Cyclone ball carriers have “Protect the Ball” plastered on the back of their shorts this fall. A year of experience goes a long way. With veterans Alexander Robinson and Austen Arnaud toting the rock in 2010, the Cyclones had a mere seven fumbles. Get back down to those levels and you have an extra 11 possessions to put points on the board. Steadiness is the key.

Other than Lolo Jones and Shawn Johnson (wait, why are we still talking about her?), the Iowa State quarterback battle is probably the most discussed item in Iowa this fall.  

No matter who is taking snaps, quarterback efficiency is vital. The Cyclone signal-callers completed a paltry 51.4 percent of their passes last year and fired 17 interceptions. Simply put: that is awful.

(Penn State and Georgia Tech were the only other schools to make bowl games and have their quarterbacks complete less than 52 percent. Neither of those schools passing games elicits thoughts of the 2000 St. Louis Rams.)

The quarterbacks don’t have to be RGIII or Brandon Weeden, even if they are middle of the road in accuracy, production increases a bunch.

Follow this math with me: the Cyclones averaged a shade over eleven yards per completion last year. They attempted 484 passes last year and completed 249 of those throws. The median completion percentage for all quarterbacks in college football was right at 60 percent.

Break out the calculator: 484 (passes) x .60 (percent completion)= 280 completions. 280 (potential completions)-249 (actual completions) = 31. 31 (completions) x11 (yards per completion) = 341 yards over the year.

Now 30 yards extra per game may not seem like a huge difference, but it would’ve jumped the Cyclones from 60th in total offense all the way up to 34th. 341 yards equates to more first downs, which means longer drives and better opportunity to put points on the board.

I’m sure my sixth grade math teacher Mr. Hulst would be proud.

The passing game is a two-way street. The wide receivers have to get open and make plays once they get the ball. The longest touchdown pass in 2011 was a Josh Lenz to Darius Reynolds 40 yard bomb off a reverse against UCONN. It may have been the most accurate deep ball of the year. (I kid, I kid…kind of.)

Iowa State hasn’t had a 50+ yard touchdown pass in five years. In November 2007, Bret Meyer connected with Todd Blythe on a 55 yard touchdown against Colorado. That was Gene Chizik’s second (and last) conference win. The downfield threat has been missing ever since Mr. Blythe left town.

Perhaps Quenton Bundradge is that big-play guy? Can Jarvis West and Aaron Horne break a few bubble screens to pay-dirt? Maybe Jerome Tiller gets in on the action? Adding just a few explosive plays through the air could have a monumental impact on this squad.

Offensive Coordinator Courtney Messingham said it best last week, “Take our shots, but be smart. We can’t always have 20 play drives for touchdowns, we’ve got to take some shots and have some big plays that get us in the end-zone.”

Take shots, but be smart. That should be the new, “All In.”

Despite all the attention the Cyclone air attack is receiving, the ground game is where Iowa State will make its living in 2012. There was some thought prior to last year that in order to win in the Big 12, you had to have a powerful spread attack and go blow-for-blow with the juggernauts to compete. K-State blew that theory straight to Manhattan. Utilizing an efficient, time-consuming ground game and mistake free passing game, the Wildcats plodded along to a 10 win season.

Bill Snyder provided a blue-print that I’m sure Paul Rhoads has studied.

Believe it or not, Iowa State actually rushed for more yards per carry (4.2) than K-State (4.0). The Cyclones also threw for 60 more yards per game than the Wildcats. Yet, K-State scored 31 points per game to Iowa State’ s 22 per game. Makes no sense right? The difference: K-State had 15 turnovers, Iowa State had 35. K-State also led the Big 12 in time of possession and fewest penalties. It is easier to walk into the end-zone when you don’t step on a grenade first.  

The quarterback dilemma actually gives Iowa State an advantage in a sense. The Cyclones don’t have to be afraid of running their quarterback and risking an injury because they have a capable back-up. Both Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett are big assets to the running game.

It is easy to forget, but Jantz ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against UNI and averaged almost four yards per carry until he injured his foot against UConn.

Barnett averaged 4.2 yards per carry last year and had single game rushing totals of 125, 92, 88 and 66. Barnett actually averaged more yards per carry than Seneca Wallace did in either of his two years in Ames. 

James White, Shontrelle Johnson and Jeff Woody all showed they can make things happen when they get the ball. Iowa State and Texas were the only teams in the Big 12 to have four players average over four yards per carry and each gain 200 yards.

Home-run threats DeVondrick Nealy and Rob Standard give Iowa State more weaponry out of the back-field.

With that ability, it would benefit Iowa State to give their backs more action in the passing game. James White had a memorable touchdown reception in the first overtime of the Oklahoma State game, but otherwise the backs were largely invisible through the air.

Iowa State running backs combined to have 31 catches for 236 yards in 2011. For comparison sake, Houston running backs caught 110 balls for 1200 yards. (Houston led the nation in total offense.) The Cyclones have a totally separate offensive attack than the Cougars do, but if your best playmakers are in the back-field, it can’t hurt to find more ways to get them the ball.

Minor improvements in each of these areas could turn this offense from average to good.  Steady, but effective.

The defense has the obvious headliners in the middle with stalwarts Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. These two mashers have combined for 472 tackles over the last two years – a staggering number. Knott has 150 solo tackles the last two years, the most  solo tackles of any active player in college football over that span. And to think Knott made all those plays on an island with a separated shoulder and surgically repaired fore-arm and wrist.

Jake Knott is the reason Waldo is hiding. Fear of spiders is arachnophobia, fear of tight spaces is claustrophobia, fear of AJ Klein is called logic. (The Chuck Norris/Knott/Klein jokes could go on forever.)

That said, Iowa State has at times relied too heavily on the Knott and Klein combo to make every play. This defense still gave up 190 yards rushing per game, including a 395 yard effort at Baylor, the most by an opponent against Iowa State in 12 years.  

Rush defense is always one of the most consistent indicators for success in college football. In 2011, 54 of the top 60 teams in rush defense had six or more wins. Alabama, LSU, and Stanford all finished in the top five of rush defense – all were contenders to win the BCS title.

Iowa State was 98th in the country stopping the run. And one of only two BCS teams that finished in the bottom 25 of rush defense to go to a bowl game (Baylor was the other).

The Big 12 has a stigma that it is a pass-first conference, but Baylor, Texas, K-State, TCU, Kansas and Iowa State all ran the ball significantly more than they threw it.

Stopping the run is priority number one. With a healthy Knott and Klein, a deeper group of defensive linemen and battle-tested safeties, it is reasonable to expect a decent uptick in production in stuffing the run. Iowa State will not threaten to be as good as LSU or Alabama, but if they can chip off 30 yards per game on the ground, this defense could be salty.

The defensive line gets added grief with their lack of pass rush. Iowa State has had 44 sacks during the Paul Rhoads era. Four teams in the FBS had more than 44 in 2011 alone.

But as defensive line coach Shane Burnham astutely pointed out, sacks aren’t everything:

“I know our sack numbers have not been great. I look at it a little differently. You look at scoring defense; our job is to keep them off the board. And then you look at third down defense; you get off the field. We’ve got to realize that before we got here they (Iowa State) were 12th out of 12 teams, third down defense . Year one we were 11th in the conference. Year two we were 8th in the conference. Year three we were 4th in the Big 12 last year in third down defense. To me that shows we’re getting to the quarterback, and affecting the quarterback, getting the ball out of his hand, forcing him to take the short throw and helping us get off the field.”

If the Cyclones can get just a shade more pressure out of the line it will be a bonus and could add to the steady growth of the entire unit.

Causing turnovers is one area where the Cyclones have been very good and the defensive line getting some pressure is part of that. Iowa State has forced 23 or more turnovers in each year of the Rhoads era. There are only a handful of BCS teams that have accomplished the 23 or more turnover feat over the past three years:

Oklahoma State, Utah, Oregon, Oklahoma, Boise State, Wisconsin, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Iowa State.

Pretty elite company. But turnovers can be a fickle mistress. (Aside: is there such thing as a reliable mistress? Tiger Woods agrees with me.)

The Iowa State secondary didn’t record an interception over an eleven game stretch – from the Texas game in October 2010 to the Texas Tech game in 2011. The Cyclone defense also didn’t force any turnovers in the last two games of the year (K-State and Rutgers.) Not coincidentally, they lost both.

Run defense, extra pressure and continue to force turnovers. This defense will not put up numbers that will endanger the legacy of the ’85 Bears or even equal Iowa State’s  stellar defense of 2005. The Big 12 conference is a monster to defend, Iowa State plays seven teams that finished in the top 30 in total offense a year ago.

But with a small bit of improvement in each area, they have the potential to be an upper tier defense in the conference. And that could be the ticket to another bowl game.

Once again the national pundits have taken a cursory look at this team and dismissed them as mincemeat for the powers of the conference. It’s hard to blame them. Iowa State doesn’t have the headliners or the flashy history. Quietly though, the Cyclone football team has built a foundation for continued success.

This team needs to take the step from occasional dragon-slayer to persistent performer. They’ve got the recipe to do it. No need for heroics, just solid work. More Tim Duncan less Dennis Rodman.

And as I wrote last year at this same time, if  we’ve learned anything over the past three years it is this:

Underestimate Paul Rhoads at your own peril.