Blum: The Next Hurdle

When Paul Rhoads picks up the microphone, people stop and listen. About a month ago, Rhoads took center stage for the keynote address at the Iowa State coaches night in a jam-packed 7 Flags Events Center in Clive. Most of these "rubber chicken" occasions are ripe with jokes and pleasantries; earlier on in the evening Iowa State wrestling coach Kevin Jackson facetiously challenged, Voice of the Cyclones, John Walters to a wrestling match.

Yet when Rhoads stepped to the podium, the tenor of the convention hall switched from jovial to determined. It was 10 days before the home opener with Tulsa and Rhoads had the look of a man that was gearing up for something significant. In the entirely of his 30 minute speech, there was no smile and no teleprompter. He had command of the room with tenacious, raw emotion:

"I came here to build a championship program. Three wins in the Big 12 conference in our first three years might have been right for what we had. But it’s NOT what we aspire to achieve."  

For the second straight year, the Cyclones are 3-0 as they head into Big 12 play. The table is set for the gauntlet that awaits.

College football coaches always talk about taking the next step. Dan McCarney brought Iowa State from ridicule to respectability. But each time the Cyclones lunged for the "next step" pylon under Coach Mac, they were ruled out at the one yard line.

Rhoads has already accomplished milestones at Iowa State not thought possible. The dragon-slaying wins at Nebraksa, at Texas and against Oklahoma State are legendary moments that shocked the college football world. This year, the recipe is different. It’s no longer time to shock the world; it’s time to show the world what Cyclone football has become.

An undefeated Texas Tech comes to Ames with revenge on the mind. Iowa State humbled the Red Raiders in Lubbock last year 41-7; it was a game Tommy Tuberville’s crew took lightly. The young Raiders were still celebrating their upset win over Oklahoma the week prior, ending OU’s 39 game home winning streak. Thousands of fans were sporting their freshly printed "OU Didn’t" t-shirts on the crisp October evening in west Texas. But before they knew it, Iowa State had bloodied their nose and drenched those OU shirts with embarrassment and humiliation. Tech went on to lose every single game from there on out.

This is a different group of Raiders and hopefully a different group of Cyclones.   

Iowa State can no longer rely on the sneak attack. The Cyclones best has to be good enough to beat the Raiders best. And therein lies the formula to take the vaunted "next step" as a program.

Paul Rhoads’ club has been in similar positions. Two years ago, Iowa State was 3-2 and hosting 10th ranked Utah in a night game at Jack Trice. Utah was a mere five-point favorite and many experts picked Iowa State to take down the highly ranked Utes . But Shaky Smithson and a disastrous second quarter doomed Iowa State en route to a 68-27 throttling. The Cyclones were not ready for someone’s best shot and it showed.

Last year, Iowa State was 3-0 and hosting 17th ranked Texas in a night game at Jack Trice. An Iowa State win would have been nowhere near an upset. Three first half turnovers, a blocked punt and mindless penalties extinguished any Iowa State hope by halftime. Texas cruised to a 37-14 win. The Cyclones were still not ready; they dropped three straight games after the defeat.

As fate has it, here we are again. Iowa State has a legitimate chance to move to 4-0 for only the second time in 32 years and the first time since 2000. This team looks the part of a squad on the cusp of something meaningful. The defense is much more sound than it was a year ago, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry; a full yard and half better than in 2011. The offense is a more seasoned group and has looked far from dominant, but the pieces are there. Iowa State is one of the most balanced offensive teams in the nation; they have 35 first downs via the run, 34 first downs via the pass.   

The growth of the Cyclone program is evident, it’s just a matter of clearing the next hurdle. In order to be persistently successful, Iowa State has to protect its home field. The atmosphere during the Oklahoma State game in 2011 can’t be an anomaly, it needs to be the norm. Hilton Magic could use a cousin.     

As everyone realizes, the Big 12 is relentless; nine of the 10 teams received votes in the polls this week. There are no breaks from here to December, Texas Tech is fighting to climb the same mountain. The only way to become relevant in this conference is to earn it. As the old adage says, "If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing."

A win on Saturday would not make national headlines, there would be no rushing of the field. It would simply be a win, and those add up to make a new kind of Cyclone history.

Paul Rhoads ended his speech on that August night in Clive with this, "I don’t know what 2012 is going to provide, but I know what my vision is, you all come along for the ride. "

See you at the Jack.