Iowa State’s offensive line seeks to establish new “standard” against TCU and beyond

Sep 30, 2023; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Rocco Becht (3) throws during the first half against the Oklahoma Sooners at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

 AMESJarrod Hufford bristled at the constant derision. The criticism and the lack of production formed a dark cloud over him and his fellow Iowa State offensive linemen. 

 So he resolved to change the well-worn narrative — and possibly, the long-term forecast.

 “Obviously every week we try to fine-tune our details and fundamentals and whatnot, but I think last week (in a loss at Oklahoma) it was, like, we’ve had enough,” said Hufford, who hopes to help create more sustained offensive success against TCU (3-2, 1-1) in Saturday’s 7 p.m. (FS1) Big 12 matchup at Jack Trice Stadium. “And I think the running backs had enough. The tight ends had enough, blocking the perimeter, they had enough. And I think especially on those first couple of drives, that ball was spitting out.”

 Simply put, the Cyclones (2-3, 1-1) were spitting mad about their sparse offensive production in one-score losses to Iowa and Ohio — and it showed early on in what eventually devolved into a 50-20 loss to the Sooners on the road.

 ISU rushed for 121 yards in the first half and trailed by just one, at 21-20, midway through the second quarter before a spate of mistakes and an unusually shaky defense unraveled any hopes of keeping the game close. 

 But that early success in the run game stokes optimism that the Cyclones can finally move the ball in ways that don’t hinge on the flick of quarterback Rocco Becht’s throwing wrist. ISU hadn’t rushed for more than 87 yards in a single game against FBS foes this season — so that first-half explosion in Norman fuels hopes that the offense can finally find a rhythm that lasts closer to 60 minutes, rather than 10 to 15.

 “If you’re gonna create change, you’ve gotta draw a line in the sand and you’ve gotta demand it,” Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell said when asked about Hufford’s ‘we’ve had enough’ decree. “I’m glad that’s the answer — and I hope that continues to be the answer because one game doesn’t define a season. And, obviously, we didn’t win the game, and there probably could have been a lot (of) better moments, but I think there was great growth.”

That’s great, yet it’s not remotely enough as ISU continues to operate in underdog mode for the foreseeable future. One good half in the running game won’t change those odds, but the progress gleaned from it should bolster the Cyclones’ efforts to settle into the top half of the Big 12 standings as the season wears on.

 “I think that the way that the offensive line came off the ball created space for (the running backs),” ISU’s first-year offensive coordinator Nate Scheelhaase said. “I think the running backs being in synch with those guys, yeah, it was an encouraging day and something that I think we can build off of.”

 True freshman running back Abu Sama turned seven carries into 67 yards. Eli Sanders rambled 41 yards on seven carries. And oft-injured fellow tailback Cartevious Norton uncorked a powerful 20-yard run to help ISU average 5.6 yards per carry — over twice its previous average against FBS foes.

 Couple that oversized output on the ground with big plays in the passing game by receivers Jaylin Noel and Jayden Higgins — who both scored touchdowns on passes spanning 51 or more yards from Becht — and optimism begins morphing into high expectations for an offense that’s struggled to consistently put points on the board since the 2021 season.

 “Just continuing to build confidence,” Noel said of Becht. “He’s a guy who already has that confidence, but receivers going out there and making big plays, and him putting the ball where it needs to be, that will continue to allow him to grow as a quarterback.”

 And to lead a possibly resurgent ISU offense, especially if the Cyclones have truly “had enough” after dropping eight one-score games in the past two seasons.

 “I remember after Abu’s long run in that first half of the Oklahoma game, we kind of looked at each other like, ‘(These are) the kind of lanes we can make,’” Hufford said. “That’s kind of the standard moving forward from here on out. These big runs are what we’re able to do when we have that united feeling.”

Not to mention a defiant spirit that must be maintained against the Horned Frogs and everyone else populating the schedule.

“I just think from here on (out) our tenacity is what’s gonna (propel) us, no matter the size of the box, no matter who’s playing,” Hufford said. “We get it done.”