Erratic ISU offense hopes to hit consistent groove vs. TCU and beyond

Sep 28, 2019; Waco, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Deshaunte Jones (8) catches a pass and is upended by Baylor Bears safety Chris Miller (3) and linebacker Jordan Williams (38) during the first half at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Two weeks ago, Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy brimmed with excitement about what his offense — and the Cyclones writ large — could be. 

 “We’re clicking right now,” Purdy said after breaking the school record with 510 yards of total offense in a 72-20 rout of Louisiana-Monroe. “We’re getting closer and closer.”

 Then, ISU took a step back. Again.

 The Cyclones (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) failed to eke out points in five drives that ended inside the Baylor 43-yard line last week, and saw a valiant comeback bid fall painfully short in a 23-21 setback that typified the hot-and-cold nature of ISU’s season to date.

 “Honestly, it’s been a little frustrating because we’ve seen it happen (almost) every game, where we have these hiccups when we get past the 50 and inside the 45,” said Purdy, whose Cyclones try to even their conference mark against TCU (3-1, 1-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium. “We understand what we’ve got to do to fix it and it just keeps happening, so I think this game will be a great opportunity to finally just push through and to really break through that mark and get over that hump. If we do that I think we’ll be good to go for the rest of the season.”

 They are close and that’s what fuels the frustration.

 ISU ranks fourth nationally in average yards per play at 7.8, but tumbles to 21st in points per game (36.7) — despite the 72-point outburst against the Warhawks. 

 That degree of consistency — the Cyclones scored on 11 straight offense possessions against ULM — has been the outlier in a season that’s featured 15 midfield or deeper drives that have petered out completely without points.

  “I think the biggest thing for us is we’ve got to score,” ISU offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. “We’re moving the ball efficiently — and it has been across the 50-yard line, 40-yard line moreso. The biggest thing is we’ve got to stay out of negative yardage plays. … Those are the things that have killed us, whether it’s been a sack, or missed assignment, whatever it may be, I think those are the things that kill all drives.” 

How does it continue to happen? The explanations seem to spin like broken records, but they remain rooted in facts and details; a missed block or field goal here, a penalty or turnover there, all of which adds to the consternation. 

 Even the outburst against the Warhawks didn’t come without significant early flaws. Purdy turned the ball over twice in the first five minutes, but the defense bowed up each time to set the stage for the runaway win.

 “I think our football team — somewhere along the way, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault — it’s who we are right now,” Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said. “We’ve won a lot of games in the last two years in the margins. If you look back at the last six, seven or eight games that we’ve played, we’ve seemed to lose some games in the margins. You see a better football team, but yet, you see those margins are still important. Sometimes you get so excited because you’re a better team and there are expectations, but you still have to win in the margins. We’re minus-four in the turnover margin … that’s really hard. You have to be pretty special to overcome minus-four at this point in the season. We can’t do those things.”

 Especially Saturday. 

 The Horned Frogs counter ISU’s yards-per-play prowess by limiting foes to 4.1 yard per play, which ranks ninth nationally.

 TCU also ranks second nationally in third down conversions per game (9.3), while ISU sits at 123rd in average third down conversions allowed at 8.0.

 So expect the Cyclones’ respective strengths and weaknesses — on both sides of the ball — to be fully tested this weekend.

 And that’s a welcomed crucible when long-term thinking rightly takes hold.

 “Now you’re doing it against a team that’s probably, in our conference, the best at third and fourth down offense and third and fourth down defense and obviously in the turnover margin, they’re up near the top,” Campbell said. “It’s a really good challenge for us. It’s a great opportunity for us to take the next step as a football team.”

 It’s also another chance to replace frustration with excitement — and perhaps, to prevent those polar opposite elements from trading poll position from week to week.

 “When Campbell first got here and they’re beating teams and stuff, not with large talent, it’s because they were paying attention to detail,” Purdy said. “They were taking care of the ball, not turning it over, things like that. I feel like if we hammer down on those details right now we can do things that have never been done before here, so it’s something that we’ve learned the first four games and going into this fifth game we’re just trying to clean everything up.”


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.