Separating reasons from excuses is never easy. Though they both fall into the realm of necessary explanations that we all seem to crave so deeply, but neither is black nor white. Instead we are left with a confusing puddle of gray mixed with some faint black and white streaks.
We’re looking at a football program and a fan base that has been battered and bruised over the course of history, but recently there have been even more tough pills to swallow. Consecutive weeks with 14 point and 17 point leads, respectively, evaporated when the defense couldn’t make a big play and the offense completely collapsed.
That alone is jarring enough, but our minds and the minds of the players are going to wander back to the end of last season where two of the last three games ended in losses but were in similar fashion. A 31-21 lead at the end of the third quarter evaporated to Oklahoma State in Ames and the following week it was a 35-21 lead in Manhattan (35-14 at halftime).
There is no doubt that losing games like that creates a psychological burden on the players and coaching staff, the weight of that burden increasing with every missed opportunity.
This has culminated to Iowa State being 1-8 in its last nine games with four of those losses coming as double-digit leads in the fourth quarter went. Yet another loss was by less than a touchdown to UNI (though in reality it should never have been that close) and all involved are left wondering, “Why can’t we win the close ones?” or maybe worse yet, “Why can’t we finish the job with double digit leads?”
It goes into the previous three seasons but the routine culprit is the offense completely collapsing. The four blown leads are broken out below by offensive production in the first three periods compared to the fourth. Note that the Kansas State game is the only one where the offense mustered anything at all but they lost four fumbles in the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter that negated anything positive.
But here’s the rub; is that coaching failing to adjust or adjust to the adjustments? Are they getting too conservative? Is it the lack of quality depth across the board in the infancy of Matt Campbell’s tenure? Is it the losing culture creeping into their minds? Is it fatigue? Or is it the known talent gap, especially on the line of scrimmage for both the offense and the defense that is playing itself out?
The other portion of the equation is the defense has played sufficiently in these games, but they haven’t been able to make the big play to stem the tide. Iowa State hasn’t forced a fourth quarter turnover in a meaningful game since the home game with Iowa in 2015.
In these four games specifically, the defense has played reasonably well (especially when you consider the explosiveness of the opponent in all games except Kansas State) but, when the opponent has gotten to the point where they cannot afford an empty drive and still make the comeback, the defense hasn’t been able to come through. They haven’t made the stops or the big play to salt the games away.
It doesn’t only happen in Jack Trice Stadium. There have been plenty of instances with soul crushing losses on the basketball court too. But whether the deflating moment happens in Hilton Coliseum or a half a mile to the south, the groans reverberate through the crowd and the dread sets in.
My best example of the irrational fear that we can feel came in the 2011 game against UNI. It was late and the Cyclones were scratching and clawing to get the win when they score a touchdown with 40 seconds remaining to go ahead, 20-19.
Naturally, in that situation you have to go for two to earn a three point lead. But, what was I thinking that entire time? I was bracing myself for a turnover that UNI would return for two points and the lead. I was scared to even mention it to my brother before the play because I didn’t want to be the jinx, and I don’t believe in jinxes.
That is how lifelong heartbreak manifests itself in our thoughts.
I have often wondered when the audible groan hits every Cyclone fan in the building simultaneously if the players feel that. If it affects their psyche and decision making; whether the cause be a dropped ball, a missed free throw, or a tackle not made.
But, there are times too, where this seems like a chicken and the egg scenario where the program has never been able to fully eradicate itself of the unsurprising, yet also unlikely negative results. Is the losing culture projected onto the football program from a fan base that has been so ingrained in disappointment or is it a deep-seated mindset that has never been completely removed from the program for long stretches, regardless of the coaches or players on the field?
No matter the origin, or the continuing fuel source to perpetuate the feeling, the real question is if it has had an impact at all. Are the little plays not being made because of negative thoughts that brought doubt into the situation? Or, is the fumble here and dropped ball there no different than the same mistakes happening in the first quarter of a game against Kansas; but these mistakes when games are trying to be salted away are just illuminated that much more?
It can be impossible to distinguish, but regardless there is only one cure. Make the plays when they’re needed the most.
Arbitrary data elimination isn’t always the best way to give a clear picture of what is going on, but there are cases of outliers where removing data aligns with common sense.
We all know that Iowa State’s first two games against Northern Iowa and Iowa were abysmal performances but I’m not sure most of us realize, how bad. At cfbanalytics.com we have a metric to objectively evaluate each team’s performance in scoring efficiency by points per possession in every game based off the strength of their opponent and home field advantage.
Those first two games are the worst two performances by any Big 12 team all season long (follow the link and set the filter on the top portion of the dashboard to Big 12 and scroll down, way down).
That should offer some insight into the fact that Iowa State is 89th in the ratings, with an adjusted scoring offense ranked at 68th, and adjusted scoring defense ranked at 104th. Really, it is almost a small miracle that the numbers aren’t worse.
But, what do those numbers look like if we remove the first two games for a young team, with a hodge-podge offensive line, and new coaching staff?
In the last four games the Cyclones have been playing like the 46th best team in the country with an adjusted scoring offense ranked 14th in the country, and an adjusted scoring defense at 99th.
The offense, for all its faults and fourth quarter disappointment is scoring at a clip of a top 15 offense over the past four games, after adjusting for the strength of the opponent. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that there haven’t been “easy” points from turnovers or special teams and very rarely have they been gifted field position on the positive side of the 50 yard line.
When you’re frustrated over the results of the last two weeks and upset that people are citing improvement that lead you to the “moral victory” debate (a useless debate, by the way, when all we’re talking about is a label for a performance) just remember, it isn’t fluff. There are real tangible improvements being made.
If that can be sustained, those little plays will start to be made that can lead a team to victories. I don’t think teams “learn to win” so much as they continue to put themselves in positions to win and continually work to do the right things, at the right time. Eventually under those circumstances, the wins will come.