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Football

Season preview roundtable

JARED STANSBURY: Football season is finally upon us and I don’t know about you guys, but I can hardly contain my excitement. I could just be drinking the Kool-Aid, but I am especially excited to see this Iowa State team take the field against UNI on Saturday. I’m so intrigued by this defense and some of the new pieces Paul Rhoads and his crew have brought in. Plus, the offense has the potential to be exponentially better than they have been since I’ve been closely following the team. 

Are you guys buying into the hype as much as me or am I crazy?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Jared, you are such a young and innocent soul.  

No, you aren’t crazy. A little naive? Perhaps. But crazy? Not at all. 

I’ll say this: I am more optimistic about this team than I was down at the Big 12’s media day in Dallas in July. By all means, camp went well. For the most part the team stayed healthy and like you, I’m encouraged by the developments on defense. The talent level on that side of the ball has drastically increased since last season. I’m encouraged and intrigued with the talk of this 3-4 stuff and what not that Wally Burnham could be adding to his bag of tricks. 

To me though, the season will come down to the offense. I feel like regardless of how much better the D is, there’s still a ceiling there. If Iowa State is going to get to a bowl game, the experienced offense will have to lead the way. I obviously love the wide receivers. For some reason I’m not too concerned about the youthful running backs. I think Sam Richardson can win football games with the right cast around him. It’s the offensive line that scares me. That’s boring though. Let’s discuss Sam Richardson.  

Blum, this guy is 0-15 as a starter in the Big 12 Conference but I know you still like him a lot. 

Why? 

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BRENT BLUM: It’s unfortunate that Richardson has been saddled with the 0-15 headlines this offseason because it is clearly not all his fault. I believe he is an above average college quarterback and the numbers show that. Via ESPN, his QBR (Total quarterback rating) was 61 last year and 54 the year prior (50 is average). He accounted for over 3,000 yards of offense last year, joining Seneca Wallace (2002) and Austen Arnaud (2008) as the only Cyclones to reach that number. He can make every throw and takes care of the football. The one knock I hear about Sam is he can’t finish games, which I think is unfair as well. He rallied Iowa State for two game-determining drives at Iowa, put the Cyclones on his back against Texas (only to see the defense falter later) and was unstoppable in the second half against Toledo. Yes, he needs to stay healthy, but I think we could see a monster year out of Richardson.  

There is something I haven’t seen written about Iowa State this summer that has me intrigued and that is the Mark Mangino factor. During his second year on the Oklahoma staff in 2000, the Sooners offense improved by 35 yards, three points and added six more wins and a national title. In his second year at Kansas, the offense improved by 105 (!!) yards, 10 points and the squad improved from 2-10 to 6-6. It is difficult for coordinators to work miracles in year one, but we saw some positive signs from the offense. The Cyclones were in the top 20 in fewest turnovers and top 10 for fewest penalties. Those things can carry over. That leads me to believe IF everyone stays healthy, we could see historic offensive numbers by Iowa State standards. Second year of Mangino and rest of offensive coaches + Senior year Sam Richardson = points on that new South End Zone score board. But boys the Big 12 is no joke, do you really think those JUCOs are ready for the offensive freaks in this league? 

ROB GRAY: Back to Jared’s opening, you’re not crazy. Just young and optimistic. And why not be? I have a pet peeve about some folks in every fan base and it’s this: Pessimism and snark reign supreme — even in the offseason. My God, why not be sunny-side up until there’s proof, one way or the other, of how a season will likely shake out? It’s a new year. Why preface it by being bleak and morose (oh, and funny. Can’t forget funny)? So color me relatively old and optimistic.

I have a hard time believing the offense won’t make considerable strides in year two of the Mangino regime. If at least one of the top three receivers — Quenton Bundrage, Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery — doesn’t post all-Big 12 worthy numbers, I’ll strap on a pair of snowshoes and hike back to Ankeny from the season-closing news conference. Now it’s clear that caveats exist and for good reason. That’s where optimism meets keeping it real.

I, like CW, am in “show me” mode with respect to the offensive line. There are some talented players there, but can the unit stay fairly healthy for once? Dare I say, is it possible good breaks could outpace the bad?

As for the defense, I’ll take a “show me” approach as well. It was such a porous, ragtag group last season, seeing marked improvement would seem to be a long shot proposition. Still, I’m pleased with what I’ve seen and heard (up front and behind the scenes) about the new JUCO players, particularly on the D-line. I believe the secondary can be truly special. Linebackers — they’re the biggest “show me” segment of the defense. In sum, at this point, I believe ISU can be more like 2012 ISU than 2014 ISU. That may change within the first few series vs. Northern Iowa, but all signs, bare minimum, point to brighter days in Jack Trice Stadium. Bright enough? That’s the question that will largely be answered in the season’s first five games.  

KIRK HAALAND: I, too have the college football fan affliction of, "Can’t Stop the Optimism as September Approaches" that so boldly infects almost everyone. And, as has been mentioned, why not? This is supposed to be fun and we may as well embrace the hope now because as we’ve learned in the past two seasons, that hope can be disintegrated very, very quickly. I’m cautiously optimistic for a variety of reasons but I’m also trying to pump the brakes and keep it real.

I don’t mean to sound crass (prepare for me to sound crass), but I can’t help think of a quote from Major Payne–a terrible yet awesome movie from one of the 12 Wayans brothers back in the 1990s. He tags a rag tag group of misfit children at a Military school and attempts to whip them into shape and put them on the straight and narrow. Mr. Payne isn’t really compatible with children so humor ensues, but in particular a line from him after improving his troop resonates with me, "You’re still a s*** sandwich, you just ain’t a soggy one."

That’s where I’m at with these projected improvements of the defense, specifically the defensive line. Last year, that was a unit that was hit hard by late attrition and never had all of the hands on deck that were needed, and metaphorically some of those dudes that did had no hands. The influx of JUCO talent for 2015 and perhaps the coming of age for a guy like Pierre Aka are spawning hope. But, even if there is improvement made the Cyclones allowed 5.72 yards per carry last year (shameless plug), fifth worst in the country. So improvement does not necessarily equal good. 

Also, this isn’t just a defensive line problem. In 2014 the linebacker play left a whole lot to be desired. Even with an improved line, is Jordan Harris ready to step in as a big time starter in a big time league? How about Kane Seeley, Jay Jones, and Reggan Northrup? I even have my questions with the secondary that most have lauded as being the best returning corps of the defense: 99th in opponent passer rating, 103rd in opponent yards per pass attempt, and 94th in percentage of passes intercepted. Of course being 121st in sack rate by notching a sack just once every 30 attempts didn’t help. 

The defense in general last year couldn’t stop the run and wasn’t disruptive enough to do much against the pass game, that’s the bad news. The good news has been the emergence of talent on the defensive line that should help in 2015. Even if it is only raw ability for the first few games as the learning curve sets in for guys like DeMond Tucker, Bobby Leath, and Jhaustin Thomas. There are some capable guys there. Stopping the run is project number one, but I think this year the defense has to get some turnovers to halt drives, setup the offense with field position, and maybe score a time or two on their own. Last season the Cyclone defense was just 107th in turnover rate by possessions and 117th in turnover rate by total plays.

All of that said, the offense needs to help more than they have in the Rhoads era, and really, the McCarney era as well. There are some tools in place and the wide receivers and Sam Richardson should be the focus of the improving offense. But it starts up front. It seems every year we hear the offensive line will be improved but the running game has gradually disappeared in the Rhoads era as guys like Reggie Stephens, Ben Lamaack, Scott Haughton, Hayworth Hicks, and Kelechi Osemele have moved on. I need to see with my own eyes that they can open up holes and get a push on the line. If they can, I believe that even young and inexperienced running backs can be good enough to make some hay and make the offense tick.

Well, dudes, I got a little carried away there maybe…but I think all of our excitement can be summed up as an improvement over last season while wondering if that improvement will be good enough to notch wins when the opportunity presents itself. The Big 12 is a gauntlet, but surely there are some wins to be found there….right?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: There are absolutely wins out there but as is always the case for Iowa State, the margin for error is thing. The Cyclones have to remain relatively healthy and a few things have to go this team’s way. 

After the last two years though, I’d say that this program is due for some positive breaks. 

BRENT BLUM: I’m a sucker for historical comparisons and I see a lot of similarities between this year’s club and the 2004 Cyclones. For you youngsters and your loud music, snapchats and skinny pants, the 2003 squad won two games and got absolutely obliterated, losing their final 10 games. In the off-season there was talk of a culture change, players were dismissed and leaders such as Ellis Hobbs took control of the locker room determined to turn things around. The 2004 team had some young guys grow up after getting thrown in the fire the year prior and also added some key JUCO pieces, namely Tim Dobbins and Lamarcus Hicks. And yes, CW, they stayed healthy. 

That team opened the season by dominating UNI, shutting out the Panthers and holding them to under 100 yards. They had some bumps in the Big 12 road, but rebounded to win seven games and the Independence Bowl. Granted that was in the era of the Big 12 North and Baylor ineptitude, but it’s amazing what that first game did for the confidence of the team for the season. The UNI game is arguably the most important game of the Rhoads regime. Iowa State absolutely has to have that one. Start 1-0 and let’s see how this team has grown up and if that culture can make a difference. It’s been done in Ames before. 

ROB GRAY:  You all make fine points. I especially appreciate the historical parallel Blum presented. For anyone that’s been around fall camp this season, the culture issue isn’t based merely on talk. There’s a noticeably different and better vibe emanating from all the players and coaches. Having everyone bought in — without one or two malcontents simply mouthing the words, thus disrupting the all-in collective — is huge for this program. But what happens when adversity strikes as it certainly will? Rhoads mentioned this during media day. No one knows for sure if a culture restoration is complete and will take hold until that renewed sense of resolve and accountability is tested. And even if these guys are rock-solid in the face of challenges, luck, as CW, alluded to, will have to swing back in ISU’s favor after being stuck on the other side of the ledger the past two seasons.

Bottom line: I think this team will surprise people in both good and bad ways this season. One week great. The next, a step or two back. If a resilient response follows these periods of ups and downs, though, I’d be surprised if this team doesn’t at least double its win total — and possibly knock on the door for another bowl appearance if all/most of the JUCOs pan out. One thing I don’t see in this team is quit. Never should see that, obviously, but it appears these players are unified, trust one another much more than in 2013 and 2014, and enter this season with a well-positioned chip on their shoulder. That’s a good start. 

KIRK HAALAND: As per usual, Blummer is onto something here about the similarities in a one year turnaround in 2004. But, it wasn’t all that different in 2009, the first year of the Rhoads era. In 2008, Iowa State went 2-10 under Gene Chizik without winning a single conference game but the following season saw ISU go 7-6 with a bowl victory over Minnesota. 

The point worth noting to me is that in 2003, ISU was 0-1 in one score games at the final buzzer (eight points). Yet somehow in 2004 the Cyclones were able to go 5-3 in one score games. Go back to 2008 and the Cyclones were 0-4 in games decided by eight points or less. The following year, Iowa State was able to go 3-2 in these close games. 

So, what’s the point? That old "learning to win" cliche. Whether it’s true or not, there are two examples in the past 15 years where ISU made a dramatic shift in not only winning close games but playing close games (see: 2003). 

In 2014, Iowa State won two games by eight points or less but they also three games by that same small margin. That isn’t so much a positive but if you compare that to what the 2004 and 2009 teams had experienced it is much further along in the positive direction.

Football games are often won and lost on a few small plays in each game and the best teams find ways, or get lucky, to make those plays when needed. Timing is everything and hopefully the timing is right for this ship to change course in 2015. 

ROB GRAY: I appreciate all the insight, gents. Of course, a bolt of bad news had to permeate our string of analysis, though. As we all know, the mostly new D-line I think we all are (or were) cautiously optimistic about lost a man Thursday afternoon when Devlyn Cousin chose to leave the team. I wrote an article exploring what factors will determine the impact of Cousin’s decision, but I’m curious what you guys gauge the damage to be on a scale of one to 10. Does it take the shine off the talk of a renewed culture that’s reportedly more conducive to winning? Since he was second-string, is it possible the impact could be negligible if everyone else in the 3-deep improves even a bit more? I know from a depth and PR standpoint, it’s a significant hit. When anyone quits a team, questions arise, as they should. So, again, is it 100 percent bad omen, or possibly a relatively minor stumbling block the D-line can overcome?

JARED STANSBURY: I think the D-Line might miss Cousin early on in the season, but by the end I think someone will have stepped up to fill his shoes quite well. I don’t know if it will be Bobby Leath, Vernell Trent or Robby Garcia but one of them will step up into the role as backup defensive tackle. Plus, if Pierre Aka has improved as much as the coaches say, he could be in for a breakout season anyway. The loss of Cousin obviously hurts, but in my opinion it doesn’t hurt the on-field product as much as it would have in years past. These guys don’t have to step up and be world-beaters. They just need to come in, hold their own and eat up blockers. That will allow the linebackers and secondary to do their thing and fly around making plays. 

CHRIS WILLIAMS: There is now way to spin the Cousin news into a positive, but I can’t quit thinking about how Robby Garcia (!!) started game one last year against North Dakota State. I’m not sure he’ll even crack the two-deep when it is released for the 2015 opener on Moday. Even without Couisn, the Cyclones are still in much better shape up front on D compared to a year ago. But then again, that’s not saying much. 

Thanks guys. The insight has been fantastic. 

Guess what? IT’S GAME WEEK! 

C

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