AMES — The line hits a combo block. A mammoth hole pops open. One cut, and ISU emerging star Mike Warren is gone.
The situation above has occurred at least five times in the past three games for the redshirt freshman running back — and when it does, he’s reminded of sprinting toward a finish line, not just the goal line.
“It sort of takes me back to track season in high school, how my coach would tell me to finish,” said Warren, who reeled off five runs of 40 or more yards against Toledo, Kansas and Texas Tech. “He’d be standing on the side and just telling me to finish, like the last 10 meters and just finishing at the line.”
Monday, plenty of talk centering on both swift starts and fast finishes bubbled up around the Bergstrom Football Complex.
The Cyclones (2-3, 1-1 Big 12) failed to perform in either beginning-to-end category during last weekend’s 66-31 blowout loss at Lubbock and are fully aware a repeat in Saturday’s 6 p.m. home game against No. 3 TCU (6-0, 3-0) will spell doom.
“Starting fast was discussed emphatically last week and against this opponent this week, again, you need it,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. “That’s what we’ll set out to do.”
Warren’s aiming to become the Cyclones’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Alexander Robinson did so in 2009.
And explosive runs are fueling his quest. To put his five carries of 40 or more yards thus far in perspective, last season’s team managed one all season. One.
Warren’s set on ripping off more of them, too — and a few more could be achieved against the high-scoring Horned Frogs, who yield 183 yards per game on the ground.
“Just that confidence level’s going to keep on going up,” said Warren, who leads all FBS freshman backs in yards per carry (8.1), yards per game (114.8). “Those runs of four or five yards, those are good, but then that one big run’s going to come and I think if more of those happen then I think I’ll be able to shoulder much more of the load.”
But how much, exactly? Warren believes an ideal number for his coaches would fall in the 18-20 per game carry range — for now, anyway.
"I don’t see any slowing down for him," ISU center Jamison Lalk said.
Warren rushed 23 times for a freshman single-game record 245 yards in the loss to Tech. He’s now at 574 yards in five games, which puts him on pace to well exceed the 1,000-yard benchmark.
“He can shoulder more,” Rhoads said. “I don’t think he’s conditioned to the point where he needs to be to keep on with that. Somebody talked about yesterday of him being over 500 yards in five games and what that means and I remember (Cyclone Hall of Famer) Troy (Davis) being over 1,000 in five games back in the 90s and Troy never had a problem as far as toting it or getting tired in the process. There was one time that Mike was tired in (Saturday’s) game and we still had him out there that I thought we should have substituted for him, but as he gets more accustomed to more carries and more yardage, more work, he’ll be fine.”
He’s fine now, but working to shine brighter.
“Just going play by play; just totally evaluating myself and critiquing what I can do better, or what I can do more,” said Warren, who’s quick to credit his line after each top performance. “I know last week I talked about urgency and that’s still something I’ve got to work on, just urgency in getting off the ball when I don’t have a pass protection assignment. After that, it’s just sweeping it under the rug and moving on the next week.”
There’s no concealing Warren’s star power, though, especially as ISU struggles to produce similar bright spots in other areas.
“Obviously he’s a good player, he’s got almost six hundred yards,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said during his weekly news conference. “I think you also look at they’ve got five starters back on offense up front and they’re doing a really good job of blocking for him. They’ve got really good plays designed for him to get him where he needs to and he’s hard to tackle. We’re going to have to be good tacklers, we’re going to have to play with leverage and understand where he’s at all times.”
Especially if and when those gaping holes expand and Warren hears that word “finish” echo in the back of his mind.
“After each game it’s just like, “Wow, I did this and this and this,’” Warren said. “And I think that I can probably do a lot more.”