AMES — Expecting a break from tough competition for this week’s homecoming game at ISU?
Think again — on paper, at least.
Sure, the Cyclones (1-4) are finished with three of the best teams in the Big 12, but the Toledo Rockets of the Mid-American Conference will pose a unique challenge in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. nonconference game at Jack Trice Stadium.
Bluntly, the Rockets can really run it — so much so, that they boast the top rushing attack ISU has faced in 2014.
We’re going to approach this game like we were going to play Oklahoma State, Baylor or anybody,” said Cyclone cornerback Sam Richardson, who snagged his first interception in last week’s 37-20 loss to the Cowboys. “We’re not taking them lightly at all.”
Toledo averages 242.7 yards per game on the ground, which ranks better than all but 19 teams in FBS.
The Rockets (4-2) have kept that number high despite being without top tailback Kareem Hunt the past two games.
And as luck would have it, Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads expects him back this week.
Him and his eye-popping 8.9 yards per carry average.
“We’ll have to prepare with that in mind,” said Rhoads, whose defense ranks 103rd against the run, allowing 207.2 yards per game. “He’s an outstanding player. He’s a load.”
He’s also not alone.
ISU wants to be “run first,” but has struggled to coax much production out of its tailbacks.
Toledo has put that “run first” motto into practice, with and without Hunt.
Four Rockets — led by Hunt (527 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Terry Swanson (365 yards, 2 touchdowns — have each rushed for more at least 40 more yards this season than the Cyclones’ top back, Aaron Wimberly (158 yards. 3 touchdowns).
“What I spoke of earlier with how they spread you out and what they do formationally, they do a nice job,” Rhoads said of Toledo’s running game. “They really do a great job with their line pulling, climbing to the second level. Not blocking people at the point of attack to get to that other person and just leave a guy there that can’t make the play. The running backs benefit from that scheme and they stick with it. They’re going to push their run game through.”
Toledo’s reasonably effective through the air, as well, despite losing starting quarterback Phillip Ely — a transfer from Alabama — for the season because of a torn ACL.
Sophomore Logan Woodside has stepped in and thrown for 1,075 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
His most dangerous target?
Alonzo Russell, a 6-4 junior, who’s caught 31 passes for 474 yards and six touchdowns.
He leads a group of mostly younger receivers who have helped the Rockets score 34 or more points in four of six games.
“They’ve been prolific at scoring points and they’ve plugged the next guy in,” Rhoads said when asked about Ely’s injury. “(Woodside) throws the ball with confidence. They’ll spread the field very well. They do a nice job with motions and formations, utilizing empty sets. They’ve got some good skill players that have been productive for them.”
So does ISU, which has just scratched the surface of its potential for explosiveness on offense.
Is this the week the Cyclones go “boom” (in a good way) from beginning to end?
Needs to be.
Toledo’s no push-over.
“They’re a great team from what I’ve seen so far and (ISU running backs) coach Lou Ayeni knows a lot about them coming from there, so he’s kind of giving us the personnel and what he thinks each players going to bring (on defense),” Cyclone quarterback Sam Richardson said. “We’ve go tot look more into it, but I think there’s definitely opportunities to take some shots there back in the secondary. Got to establish the run game and get some quick screens going. So trying to do a little bit of everything — keep it balanced — and I think we’ll have a good day.”
Rhoads said Monday he expects wide receiver/return man Jarvis West (foot) and linebacker Drake Ferch (collarbone) to be “ready to play” Saturday. He’s less clear about banged-up offensive tackle Brock Dagel, who’s battling a chronic knee issue. ““He could have played (at Oklahoma State),” Rhoads said. “He could play this Saturday. We’re trying to figure out the smart route to take with him for his immediate health and for his long-term health as well as keeping the team in mind.”