AMES — The collective weight of three or four Rockets pulled at E.J. Bibbs’ shoulders, waist and legs.
As the powerful Iowa State tight end carried tacklers toward the goal line, something had to give, and it wouldn’t be him.
A frayed fragment of Bibbs’ gold jersey fell to the Jack Trice Stadium turf, but the 6-3, 264-pound senior kept chugging during a gritty five-yard catch-and-run to the end zone that helped the Cyclones hold off the Toledo 37-30 Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
“When they call the play call towards me, you know I’ve got to get into the end zone,” said Bibbs, whose refusal to go down broke a 23-23 tie with 10:23 left. “That’s my mindset. I was trying to come out and just finish the play with my team.”
That team improved to 2-4 while notching its second home win in its last 12 games before a crowd of 52,281. The MAC West-leading Rockets fell to 4-3.
“We haven’t been coming through here at home and you’ve got to defend Jack Trice Stadium,” Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads said. “We found whatever means it took to get that done today and (there are) a lot of happy people in the parking lots, and I’m pleased for it.”
Bibbs’ quarterback, Sam Richardson, basked in his first home victory as a starter — and shared in the heroics. Richardson set single-game career-highs in completions (37, a school record), attempts (53), passing yards (351), and total offense (382). He threw three touchdown passes to Bibbs, Tad Ecby and Allen Lazard.
“It’s long overdue, believe me,” Richardson said of his first home win as a starter. “I’m not satisfied with it though. We definitely left some points out there, going 0-for-3 in the red zone and kicking field goals (in the first half). We’ve got to work on that. We turn those into touchdowns and we score 49. So it’s, i think, a good day offensively, but we have room for improvement.”
Let’s start with the first half.
Richardson went 16 of 26 for 146 yards, but slightly overshot Lazard on a certain touchdown.
While the offensive sputtered in the red zone, the defense struggled to slow down Toledo’s top-20 rushing attack. The Rockets amassed 161 yards on the ground in the first half and converted on 7 of 10 third downs while taking a 13-9 lead.
“We just had to settle down and play our game,” said Cyclone safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, who posted a career-best 12 tackles.
So did the offense — and this time that meant going up-tempo. The change of pace worked. Richardson settled into a rhythm, completing nine straight passes at one point.
“Sam played great,” said Lazard, who led ISU with a career-best 96 receiving yards. “He was putting the ball on the money, especially in the second half.”
Richardson ended up 21 of 27 in the second half for 206 yards and all three of his touchdowns.
“It was huge,” Rhoads said of the accelerated execution on offense. “(The Rockets) were being allowed to get into blitzes and set up formations. We were allowing them to control things with their defense.”
A quickened pace helped change that, but so did much sharper performances from Richardson and the entire offense, which converted on a staggering 8 of 9 third downs in the second half.
“Throwing those quick easy passes, that’s something that definitely gets you in a rhythm and then you see yourself in third and eight and we’re completing big throws there for first downs," said Richardson, who has thrown 10 touchdown passes to four interceptions this season. "It just worked overall.”
Not without some tense moments.
The Cyclones took a 23-13 lead on Martinez Syria’s first career touchdown run with 8:04 left in the third quarter, but Toledo responded with 10 straight points to tie the score.
Cue Richardson, who hit Bibbs three times and Dondre Daley twice on the go-ahead drive.The defense then forced Toledo to punt and Richardson engineered a 16 play 85-yard touchdown drive capped by Lazard’s 14-yard touchdown that effectively sealed the win. The Rockets tacked on a late touchdown, but linebacker Luke Knott leaped and secured the ensuing onside kick.
“It’s been itching at me forever that I’d never won a game as a starter in Jack Trice, so it’s an amazing feeling,” Richardson said.
And Bibbs’ amazing play helped set it up.
“He’s a man is what that showed me,” Rhoads said of Bibbs’ determination to cross the goal line. “That’s what I told him when he came off the field. I wish he wouldn’t have let them tear his jersey and scare the heck out of me like like that that there was a flag down, which was undoubtedly going to be on us on a play like that.”
Not this time.
Moments before Rhoads locked eyes with Bibbs, running back DeVondrick Nealy had given his teammate a forceful congratulatory slap to the head.
“When I saw they were (tearing) at his jersey, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s going to score,’” said Nealy, who rushed for 71 yards on 16 carries. “He took the momentum and he just kept driving, kept driving, kept driving, kept driving. The next thing you know he was in the end zone.”
Bibbs walked off the field with his golden memento. Does he have any plans for it?
“I don’t know yet,” Bibbs said with a smile. “It’s still in my locker, so I’m going to figure out something.”