When Iowa State lost its second straight season opener to an FCS program – an embarrassing 34-14 defeat to North Dakota State just over two weeks ago – the conversation that followed on this website was as vile as I have ever seen.
By visiting our message board the following day, a guy could have easily been convinced that Paul Rhoads’ team wouldn’t win a game this season; that his firing was imminent and the south endzone expansion should be cancelled because football was on the verge of being dropped in Ames.
Sports fans overreact. It is in our DNA.
That’s why on paper, a 20-17 victory over Iowa is exactly what it is – one road win over what was maybe the weakest team Iowa State has played this season.
In year six of the Rhoads era, there is no reason to celebrate Iowa State’s 1-2 start, but being appreciative of this program’s progress over the last two weeks is absolutely called for today.
As Rhoads put it during his Big 12 teleconference, winning Saturday’s game against Iowa was “unbelievably important.”
Let’s go back in time.
While fans and media types panicked after the North Dakota State loss, Rhoads walked into his press conference the following Monday as cool as Fred Hoiberg’s Twitter account.
A few days later, fifth-year senior Jacob Gannon abruptly quit the team.
A former walk-on’s father called into a local sports talk radio show and declared that Rhoads has lost his team.
Some media members that cover Iowa State for a living agreed.
Saturday was one game of 12 and nobody has a clue how the final nine will go, but as was the case throughout a LONG 3-9 2013 season, Paul Rhoads never lost his team. That is a fact.
The Cyclones proved that on Saturday not by winning in Iowa City but by how they won.
They fooled me.
At halftime, I had a frank conversation with a colleague of mine.
“I know this program has some talent and I think that this group of coaches really knows what it is doing,” I told my friend. “I’m just not sure that the guys in this program have the mentality of a winner quite yet. I feel like while North Dakota State and Kansas State players expected to win, Iowa State’s guys just wait for something bad to happen instead of making plays on their own.”
If you listen to our podcast regularly, I have voiced concerns about Sam Richardson. What is he like in the huddle? Is Sam ever going to take charge? Does Richardson, who entered Saturday with a 1-12 record as a starting quarterback, make the guys around him believe that they can win football games?
The DeVondrick Nealy fumble at the end of the first half reinforced those doubts, not in Richardson specifically, but in the mentality of this program.
Plays were there to be made in the first half. Rhoads, Mark Mangino and Wally Burnham had a sound game plan heading into Saturday and for 60 minutes, coached in circles around Kirk Ferentz and his staff.
The players were set up to win but time and time again, failed to execute.
But this gritty group proved me (and likely you too) wrong.
To steal a line from Wayne Morgan, Sam Richardson was tough as a Great White Shark in the second half of that football game.
The mood surrounding this program was downright toxic after week one. But this group of young Cyclones stayed on course. They followed their leader’s plan and damn near upset nationally-ranked Kansas State in week two.
After giving that game away, how would they respond on the road vs. a rival in a hostile environment?
The first half reminded me of the Kansas State game. Nobody made plays.
But the Cyclones grew up a lot in the second half and if you don’t mind the cliché, perhaps this group has finally learned how to win.
FIVE MORE MUSINGS
MORE TO PROVE: Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Iowa State beat what is maybe an average Power 5 team on Saturday in the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa’s resume this season and the track record of the league that it plays in is proof of that (The Big Ten is 1-10 vs. Power 5 programs this season. Thank God for Rutgers’ three-point win over Washington State.)
FUN SECONDARY: Cory Morrissey, the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Week, sacked Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock twice on Saturday. There is no doubt that Morrissey was great but he should probably take Iowa State’s secondary out for dinner during this bye week. Iowa State sacked Rudock four times on the day and the majority of those were coverage sacks.
What’s most exciting is how much better this group can get. Free safety Kamari Cotton-Moya is only a freshman. Cornerback Nigel Tribune and strong safety T.J. Mutcherson are sophomores. And what about junior Qujuan Floyd? The JUCO free safety recorded five tackles in his first road game.
MORE MORRISSEY: During fall camp, I pondered if he was a legitimate All-Big 12 type player or simply the best player on Iowa State’s defensive line, which wouldn’t have exactly been a ringing endorsement at that point in time. But the guy has 3.5 sacks in three games this season. Morrissey has proven that he is the real deal at defensive end.
DEPTH: The stories that we wrote about Iowa State’s depth at wide receivers were 100 percent true in the offseason. For the majority of the second half on Saturday, Iowa State was playing without Quenton Bundrage, Jarvis West and P.J. Harris, men who are no doubt three of the top five wide receivers on this roster. Didn’t matter though. Guys like Allen Lazard and Brett Medders (a walk-on) rose to the occasion. What’s also scary-good about the depth is the fact that D’Vario Montgomery still doesn’t have a catch this season.
TACKLE TROUBLE: As Rhoads noted earlier today, backup offensive tackle Jacob Dunning is out for the season with a knee injury. That means that (along with Jacob Gannon) Iowa State has now lost two of its top four tackles from the season-opening depth chart in three weeks of football. Next man in: That’s redshirt freshman Shawn Curtis, who has a reputation of being a future star around the program.
WE LOVE NUMBERS
*** Through three games, Sam Richardson has completed 68 percent of his passes, which ranks him 30th in the country.
*** West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett might be the most improved player in the Big 12 this season. Trickett, a Florida State transfer, has completed 75 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,224 yards and thrown seven touchdown passes to only one interception so far this season. To his credit, two of West Virginia’s three games this season have come against Power 5 teams (neutral vs. Alabama and at Maryland).
*** The Big Ten is 1-10 against other Power 5 conferences this season. The league, however, is 5-3 against the MAC.
*** Iowa State’s next opponent, Baylor, has out-scored its first three opponents (all cupcakes) this season 178-27. Still, Art Briles sees plenty of room for improvement (gulp).
*** North Dakota State averaged 6.9 yards per rush against the Cyclones in week one. Kansas State averaged 5.7 yards per carry in week two. Iowa averaged 2.9 yards per carry against the Cyclones in week three.
*** Iowa State averaged 6.4 yards on first down Saturday in the second half vs. Iowa. That number includes the 27-yard touchdown pass from Sam Richardson to DeVondrick Nealy. On the game’s final drive, Aaron Wimberly ran for seven, five, four and two yards on first down.
MORE ON THE CYCLONES
*** Iowa State vs. Baylor on Sept. 27 will kick at 7:20 and be televised on FOX.
*** Cory Morrissey & Cole Netten were honored by the Big 12 on Monday morning.
*** At the time of publishing this piece, Iowa State holding up the Cy-Hawk trophy is the featured story at Grantland.com.