We all have done the math. Iowa State has six games left to get two wins to get to bowl eligibility for the first time in five years. And of course, what’s next in this exercise is analyzing the schedule to predict the most likely path to get those W’s.
“Well Baylor hasn’t won yet and K-State is struggling and we beat Texas Tech 66-10 last year and on and on.”
I go through the same process often and the thought of traveling somewhere in late December or early January is intoxicating. But the more I continue this W/L exercise, it has dawned on me. Are we all short-sighting the Cyclones?
It’s as if Iowa State fans are on a treadmill and once we hit that six mile mark, we are shutting down the endeavor and calling it good for the day when there is still gas in the tank. Maybe, just maybe, this group can not only clear the bowl hurdle, but compete for something far greater.
One-third of the way through the conference schedule and Iowa State is 2-1 for the first time since the Big 12 went to nine games in 2011. The Cyclones currently sit in a tie for 2nd with four others. One of those schools is Oklahoma, the overwhelming favorite when conference play started and a team Iowa State defeated on the road (This still feels fantastic to type.)
In the locker room following the Oklahoma win, I was struck by Matt Campbell’s calculated tone in a sea of celebration. “Don’t let this be the maximum.”
Iowa State is taking a page out of the Bill Snyder playbook for Big 12 success against the offensive juggernauts. From 2011 to 2016, only Oklahoma had more Big 12 wins than K-State, yet K-State never finished with an offense better than 6th in the Big 12 in that time and always had recruiting classes far below its peers.
Here are the three main tenets of Snyder’s “Vampire Ball” that sucks the life out of the opponent and led to the Wildcats sustained success.
Be solid against the run and tackle everything in front of you. Iowa State is currently allowing a paltry 3.4 yards per carry, the 2nd best mark in the Big 12 behind TCU. The longest play from scrimmage Iowa State has allowed in Big 12 play is 35 yards. This has led to giving up just 21.7 points per game overall (3rd in the league) and 16 points per in conference play, by far the fewest points allowed of any Big 12 team.
Own the special teams. K-State through the years has dominated the third phase of football. For a while it felt like K-State scored a special teams touchdown each game. Iowa State’s effort against Kansas last week showed how special teams can completely flip the script. Kansas had a muffed punt, a fumble by the punter, a punt that was nearly deflected that went eight yards and allowed a Trever Ryan 67 yard punt return for a TD. The Cyclones have been excellent all year in special teams, namely in punt and kick coverage.
Iowa State is currently 18th best in the nation in net punting and 25 of the 39 kick-offs by Chris Francis have been touch-backs (13th best in nation). These are the hidden yards that are correlated with Campbell’s steadfast attention on details and process.
Don’t Screw it up. The quickest way to lose a track-meet in the Big 12 is to give the opponent a head-start. Snyder’s K-State teams were notoriously at the top of the conference in fewest turnovers and fewest penalties. Through six games, Iowa State is 9th in the nation in fewest turnovers with five (tied with K-State as a matter of fact) and the Cyclones lead the Big 12 with fewest penalties committed at only 4.5 per game.
If the Cyclones can continue to maintain their excellence and attention to detail in those three categories, Iowa State won’t need an explosive offense that generates 500 yards per game. The blueprint for success is already out there and Iowa State has followed it brilliantly in the wins against Oklahoma and Kansas. Simply, the little things add up to wins.
There is no reason to think Iowa State will be significantly out-classed by any remaining opponent. With six games remaining, the ceiling for this team shouldn’t just be bowl eligibility.
With continued success in those “Vampire Ball” areas, much more is on the table for this group of Cyclones. The Big 12 added a Championship game this year that will pit the top two finishers against each other on December 2nd. Now, I’m not saying to reserve your rooms in Dallas just yet. But at the very least, if it comes down to it, Iowa State has the tie-breaker on Oklahoma.