Iowa State’s running game could be key to unlocking a tough road win Saturday at Cincinnati

Iowa State Cyclones running back Eli Sanders (6) celebrates after a touchdown against TCU during the first half in the Jack Trice Legacy Game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMES — Just one more twist, cut, or power move may have done it.

 A mere one yard stood between Iowa State sophomore tailback Eli Sanders and his first 100-yard rushing game in last week’s 27-14 win over TCU — but he can laugh about it now.

 “It was great to have that 99,” said Sanders, who hopes to keep helping the Cyclones’ formerly dormant running game continue to progress in Saturday’s 11 a.m. Big 12 game (FS1) at Cincinnati. “It would have been a blessing to get that one, but overall that was a great team run and I couldn’t have done it without anyone.”

 At least ISU (3-3, 2-1) is able to joke about rapidly rising numbers in the ground game after enduring a long stretch of angst stemming from a paucity of production. It’s been nearly 400 days since a Cyclone tailback topped 100 yards rushing in a game, but improving offensive line play coupled with better perimeter blocking from the tight ends and receivers buoys hopes that more gains in production are likely to come as the second half of the season unwinds.

 “(Before) it was kind of the mentality of playing not to lose,” said senior tight end Easton Dean, who caught his third career touchdown pass against the Horned Frogs. “Just trying to be too perfect and then, you like, think too much (instead of) going out there and playing. You hear the outside noise. You don’t want to let it get to you, but at the same time, that stuff makes you kind of mad, so you’ve gotta go out there and show the world what we’re about.”

 The Bearcats (2-3, 0-2) enter Saturday with a similar mindset after suffering three straight losses. Cincinnati’s four-man defensive front is particularly stout and opposing offenses are averaging just 100.2 yards per game on the ground — a number good for second-best in the Big 12.

 Sprinkle in seasoned dual-threat quarterback Emory Jones, who can extend drives with his feet as well as his arm, and it’s easy to see why ISU is a 4.5-point underdog on the road.

 “I think it’s a fun challenge,” said Cyclone junior defensive tackle J.R. Singleton, who has recorded his first two career sacks in consecutive weeks. “You want to play guys like that; elite guys with their legs, elite guys with their arms. I’m excited for the task ahead.”

 Sanders and his cadre of fellow backs are amped up, as well, after amassing 215 rushing yards against TCU — the Cyclones’ most prolific ground effort in the past 19 games.

 True freshman Abu Sama scored on a 55-yard dash last week and averages a team-best 5.1 yards per carry. Sanders is next at 4.9 and Cartevious Norton also owns a handful of big ground gains for ISU, which has produced five running plays spanning 20 or more yards in the past two weeks after getting just one in the previous four games.

 “The confidence in the running backs room is at a high,” said Sanders, who’s scored the first two touchdowns of his career in the past three weeks. “We have trust in each other and we have trust in everyone else on the team, and the team has trust in us You know, sometimes it doesn’t go our way, but we always come back and keep plugging away, keep fighting.”

 That’s true whether Sanders is straining for one more yard to reach a symbolic milestone, or the team’s simply trying to ensure it can consistently grind out yards on the ground in tense situations. Bottom line: The Cyclones will need to achieve some type of balance offensively against the Bearcats in order to have a chance to win before what’s expected to be a sellout crowd Saturday Nippert Stadium.

 “When we’ve been really special here and (had) really good football teams, we’ve been elite on the road,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said. “We’ve had the ability to play great on the road and those are things that (are) part of the growth process. What’s it take to win on the road? What’s it take to win in hostile environments? This is another really special place to play college football.”