AMES — One last time through the Jack Trice Stadium tunnel.
One last time to serve as a leader on his hometown field.
“It will be emotional,” said ISU senior defensive end and captain Cory Morrissey, who will play his last home game Saturday at 11 a.m. against West Virginia. “But I’ve got a game to play after that.”
The talk around the Cyclones’ struggling program these days appropriately centers on finishing games — and finishing strong, considering three losses by four points or less have contributed to season records of 2-8 overall and 0-7 in the Big 12.
The Mountaineers (6-5, 4-4) limp into town on a three-game skid and the previous two conference meetings, which they split with ISU, have come down to the final seconds. West Virginia couldn’t finish last season, blowing a 24-point lead as second-string Cyclone quarterback Grant Rohach led a comeback 52-44 win in triple-overtime. ISU failed to close the deal in 2012, seeing a one-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate in a 31-24 setback.
Will it come down the the end again? Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads sure hopes so.
“If it’s the fourth quarter with a minute to go and it comes down to that, I’ll be pleased with where we’re at and know our guys are swinging and fighting and competing,” Rhoads said.
Swinging hasn’t been an issue. Missing — whether it’s fitting gaps, tackling or attempts to catch the football, has been. Morrissey, the lone senior starter on defense, said making sound and consistent connections comes with time.
“We’ve been playing a lot of young and inexperienced guys,” Morrissey said. “They’ve just got to learn.”
Tops on the lesson plan?
“They’ve just got to learn how to win,” he said. “This team needs to learn how to win.”
That’s painfully evident, but it’s still possible to send out the seniors with a win or two.
West Virginia, a 13-point favorite, could start sophomore quarterback Skyler Howard in place of banged-up and declining senior Clint Trickett. Howard led a failed comeback in last week’s 26-20 loss to No. 11 Kansas State. Trickett — who’s thrown five interceptions in the past three games — sustained a concussion in the third quarter.
“I don’t think we’ll have any idea (who starts) until they trot out for the first snap,” Rhoads said.
Either way, West Virginia will look to find elite receiver Kevin White, who’s two catches shy of 100 on the season. He’s also scored nine touchdowns — and made 16 grabs in a recent 33-16 loss to Texas.
“Size," Rhoads said in describing White. "And strength to go along with that."
ISU senior tight end E.J. Bibbs offers the same package for his team — as long as he can play.
Rhoads said whether he does or doesn’t will be a near game-time decision. Bibbs, who’s battled injuries and double teams much of the season while making eight touchdown receptions, was banged up in last week’s 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
“I think he’s really learned to accept, ‘Hey, I’m going to get challenged, I’m going to get bracketed, I’m going to get doubled and I have to deliver for our team,’” Rhoads said. “And that he has.”
It’s now up to younger players such as freshman Allen Lazard, sophomore D’Vario Montgomery and junior Tad Ecby to consistently deliver as well.
Lazard has done so all season, scoring three touchdowns.
Montgomery’s compiled at least 88 yards receiving in four of the past five games, along with two scores.
Ecby’s been a spotty big-play threat, but responded to a challenge from Rhoads to practice harder the past two-plus weeks. He delivered with two catches for a career-best 100 yards against the Red Raiders.
“I accepted it and just ran with it and I’m going to continue to do it,” Ecby said.
That’s what Morrissey, fellow senior captains Tom Farniok and JarvisWest, and every other senior dotting the Cyclones’ roster — wants to see from the underclassmen the final two weeks.
To finish strong, one must start off smart.
That means work — no matter if it’s the practice field, weight room or game day.
Do that, and they can approach their future senior days with their heads held high, just like Farniok, who will make his 46th career start at center, will on Saturday.
“I feel like I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity that I’ve had, which is what you want to do,” Farniok said. “I’ve put myself in a chance to keep playing football and team-wise, the last two seasons haven’t gone like we wanted, obviously. … But we’ve got a chance to finish and hopefully I can leave this place with a good feeling.”
NOTES: ISU quarterback Sam Richardson needs four touchdown passes in the final two games to tie Todd Bandhauer’s single-season school record set in 1997. Richardson’s thrown six interceptions. … The Cyclones are 1-9 in their last 10 Big 12 home games. … WILL linebacker Brian Mills appears poised for his second straight start. Why? “Plays fast as a linebacker,” Rhoads said. “Fast and physical.” Eager, too. “Started showing up,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “You can tell that he’s improved to the point that we trust him. He’s still got a long ways to go but he’s shown some improvement the last three or four weeks.”