HEAR, HEAR: Communication key for ISU offense as Akron zips into Ames

Sep 15, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back David Montgomery (32) dives in for the touchdown against the Oklahoma Sooners at Jack Trice Stadium. The Sooners beat the Cyclones 37 to 27. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — The chatter converged like a melody.

Far on the left, on the right, and straight up the middle, voices merged to create a singular focus; a unified front aligned against a daunting challenge. 

“I can hear on the field, so when I’m standing there waiting for the play to be called and looking, I can hear those guys communicating,” Iowa State quarterback Zeb Noland said of his offensive line’s cohesion in last Saturday’s 37-27 loss to No. 5 Oklahoma. “They did a phenomenal job at that.”

The O-line — much maligned after struggling at Iowa in week one — turned in an astonishing turnaround against the sophisticated and talent-laden Sooners’ defense.

The five guys up front mostly kept Noland’s jersey clean (one sack), allowing him time to drill through passing progressions and connect on big plays to Hakeem Butler and others.

They were strong and in synch — a bellwether for a broader offensive unit still striving to put together a complete game as Akron (2-0) strides into town for Saturday’s 11 a.m. (FSN) non conference matchup at Jack Trice Stadium.

“I said this about that offensive line group, I thought that was against a big-time opponent that’s the best an offensive line has played since I’ve been here against an opponent of that magnitude,” said Cyclones coach Matt Campbell, whose heavily-favored team seeks its first win of the season. “Now, what do we do with it? How does it go? Is this the group that we jell with and continue to move forward? I’m really anxious to see that because there were some moments where some big-time plays stood up and we haven’t done that. So I’m really anxious to kind of watch that group continue to grow and develop.”

The same holds true in all phases of the offense.

ISU’s defense has showed up most of last season and all of this young one, giving the team a chance to win each week.

The offense showed signs of life in all aspects of the game against Oklahoma, but progress must begin to border on perfection now.

Akron rode three defensive touchdowns (two pick-sixes and a sack-fumble-recovery in the end zone) to shock Northwestern 39-34 last week in Evanston.

Any lapse in communication or execution will be exploited. Hence the need to eliminate missteps, whether in the first quarter or the fourth.

“It’s eye opening,” Noland said of the Zips’ first win against a Big 10 team since the late 19th century. “Obviously I knew before we played them and before they played last week they were going to be experienced. They’ve got most everybody back. Those guys are extremely athletic. People think Akron and they’re, ‘Ahh.’ But not us. We played them last year (a 41-14 win) and they’re athletic. They’re very good on defense. I couldn’t tell you what they do on offense but I know on defense they’re very athletic and I respect those guys a ton.”

Noland will make his second straight start and straddles that tightrope between progress and perfection better than most. He makes a beeline towards the latter, but the steps are slow and steady, which safeguards against disastrous slip-ups.

“It’s decision making,” ISU quarterbacks coach Joel Gordon said of Noland’s key area for improvement. “He’s got to make good decisions not most of the time, he’s got to make good decisions all the time. There’s a couple plays in there that he’d like to have back and he didn’t make the right call. That’s the biggest thing he’s got to do moving forward, is continue to understand it’s a 60-minute game and he played pretty well for about 55 minutes and then didn’t in the end. That’s tough. It’s tough to do that, be consistent for 60 minutes, but you’ve go to when you play quarterback and you’re playing a team like that, you want a chance to win at the end.”

The imperfections aren’t lost on Noland, who nonetheless threw for a career-high 360 yards, two touchdowns and one late interception. 

It’s just that he must block them out on Saturdays and hone in on them each Sunday. Miscues must be flushed in the moment and learned from during film study.

“That’s why I keep saying as long as you give the receivers a chance to make a play — because I understand that everything is not going to be perfect,” Noland said. “It ain’t possible. That’s how I take my mentality.”

What is possible and even likely: Getting a win on Saturday and potentially turning it into momentum as matchups with top teams such as TCU, Oklahoma State and West Virginia loom on the horizon.

What is required: Detail, detail and more detail.

Perfection-seeking on Sunday, lockstep communication on Saturday.

“We’ve just got to play fast and just focus on us,” Noland said. “Don’t worry about what they’re doing, who they’re subbing in or out. Just go as fast as we can.”


 ****Campbell’s committed to getting backup freshmen quarterbacks Brock Purdy and Re-al Mitchell snaps sooner rather than later. They’ve earned it, but it’s all about situational football.

“We’re kind of anxious at some point to get those guys on the field,” Campbell said. “Uncertainty is probably a bad term from our end – we’re confident in those guys. What we are is we’re anxious to get them in at some point. We had to talked to both about playing last week, but the opportunity never presented itself, situationally, throughout the game. I think the reality of it is that both of those guys will always be prepared to play, we think those guys can help us win and if we see it in the system or if we can get them in to help us continue to be successful, we’ll certainly do it.”

Noland’s been doing his part to help both young players be ready, just as injured former starter Kyle Kempt did for him as he bided his time as a backup.

“I just tell them you’ve got to keep being prepared, keep being ready,” Noland said. “You may get limited reps here or there, but you’ve got to make every rep count no matter what because you never know.”

 **** Redshirt freshman center Colin Newell drew rave reviews for his growth in the spring, summer and fall camp. He finally made his first start against the Sooners and performed admirally as the line improved greatly overall.

“I thought Colin Newell kind of steadied the ship for us in a lot of ways; I thought played really, really good,” Campbell said. “I felt that way after the game on Saturday. I feel that way again after watching the videotape and believe me, I’m not sitting here saying it’s perfect, but I thought played really good against a really talented interior front. I thought Julian Good-Jones was elite at times throughout the football game at tackle and other than probably about two snaps I thought played a really, really high-end football game. And then what’s going on among that other group, they’re settling in and that’s really fun to watch right now. So that group needs practice, that group needs time and that group continues to need game reps, but I am really encouraged about what the future of that looks like and how fast can we get to being what we need to be. I think we took a huge step in the right direction last week.”

 **** ISU’s running game churned up 55 rushing yards in the first quarter against Oklahoma, but managed to sprinkle in just 24 yards in the next three. One reason: Playing from behind. The Cyclones were down two possessions much of the game, which waylaid their aim of being a run-first offense.

“I felt like we were starting to feel good about being able to get a steady dose of the run game, but I think just the flow of the game, there were some things where that team puts you in a situation where sometimes you might have to throw the ball a little bit more than you want to just to try to keep up at times,” Gordon said. “I thought we were close. There’s three or four runs in there that are an arm tackle away — instead of being seven yards, they can go 30 yards. We’ve jsut got to keep working at it. It’s a work in progress. Everything on the offense is at this point.”


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.