Lights, camera, play-action: Run game opens up big-play chances

AMES — Flashes. Glimpses. But no long streaks of success.

 That’s been the M.O. of Iowa State’s running game for at least the past five seasons.

 The Cyclones enter Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. Big 12 litmus test at max-tempo Texas Tech fresh off consecutive 200-plus yard rushing efforts.

 But doing at least that well on the ground three games in a row as a team?

 That’s proved to be an elusive bench mark to achieve, and hasn’t happened since Alexander Robinson fueled five straight 200-plus turf-bound performances in the 2009 season.

 “We’ve done it back-to-back but I don’t know if there’s any consistency yet in our running game,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. “We do it a third and do it against a second Big 12 Conference opponent, then you might say we have something there.”

 He knows he has something in tailback Mike Warren.

 The Lawton, Okla., native slashed for a freshman record 175 rushing yards in last week’s 38-13 win over Kansas while scoring the first two touchdowns of his young career. The previous week, he gouged Toledo for 126 ground yards in a double-overtime loss and has averaged 7.7 yards per carry in those two most recent games.

 “They’re probably going to be coming for me,” said Warren, who could become the first Cyclone back since Robinson with three straight 100-yard rushing games. “And one of the big things is they have to respect the run game now, which will open up the pass game. That’s one of the main things that’s probably going to happen these next couple weeks.”

 And this just in: The Red Raiders (3-2, 0-2) rank last in the Big 12 in rushing defense, allowing an average of 277.4 yards per game. They also bring up the rear in total defense (581 yards) and scoring defense (414 points per game) — but at least part of the shortcomings stem from facing the league’s most potent offenses, TCU and Baylor, in successive weeks.

 Texas Tech gambles at times, too, given its offense is one of three in the conference to put up 50 points or more per game.

 “They think that their offense is going to outscore any kind of other team’s offense, so it’s really about going out there and, I guess, scoring a lot of points,” ISU quarterback Sam Richardson said of the Red Raiders, who rank fifth in the Big 12 in takeaways with nine. “They’re a fast offense and the defense, they’re just flying around trying to make a big play. So you’ve got to stay away from giving them those big plays on their defense.”

 Conversely, the Cyclones (2-2, 1-0) look to amp up their own flair for explosive plays, which, for their purposes, means a run of 12 yards or more and a pass spanning 16 or more. 

 Rhoads said ISU has met its baseline single-game goal of six such plays in all four matchups this season. Last week, the Cyclones jabbed the Jayhawks for 11 — and Richardson said that’s more like it.

 “You push for six a game, but obviously, I think, as a Big 12 offense you definitely need a lot more than that,” Richardson said. “We kind of as an offense can get stuck in trying to be a possessive offense where we don’t take a lot of shots downfield as much as we should. I think especially with the run game how it is now, we’ll see more of those downfiled throws. We’ll take what we get.”

 Thanks to Warren and an improving offensive line, that means success in the play-action passing game. In weeks one and two, that vital piece of any offense fell flat for obvious reasons. If you can’t run, a defense won’t bite on a play fake.

 “I think people are going to have to watch out for it a little bit more, just to make sure they’re not getting burned,” Warren said.

 Good luck — as long as he and the five others (Richardson, Joshua Thomas, Tyler Brown, Trever Ryen and Joel Lanning) tasked with carrying the ball ensure recent ground gains don’t evaporate as the season wears on. 

 “The play-action game is definitely something that we have to improve on,” Richardson said. “Especially with the run game that we have, I’m sure we’ll be running a lot more of it. So just trying to get those safeties coming down on the ball anyway you can and I think with the run game that we’ve had it will continue to succeed.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.