Iowa State’s running game looms large in Saturday’s matchup with No. 22 Kansas at home

Oct 28, 2023; Waco, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Eli Sanders (6) runs the ball against the Baylor Bears during the first half at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — It’s been a little more than three weeks since Iowa State offensive lineman Jarrod Hufford said his unit had “just had enough.”

 Enough of the harsh criticism. Enough of the uneven performances. Enough of being perceived as a weak link in the Cyclones’ offense.

 So how’s it been going since then?

 ISU (5-3, 4-1) enters Saturday’s 6 p.m. ESPN-televised clash with No. 22 Kansas on a three-game winning streak. The Cyclones’ offensive line leads the Big 12 in sacks allowed (six) and that group has paved the way for its tailbacks to average 4.6 yards per carry since the fateful “had enough” pronouncement.

 “We’re taking pride in the running game and trying to get that figured out going forward,” ISU offensive tackle Tyler Miller said. “There’s still some stuff we need to clean up, but it feels really good to run the ball.”

 The Jayhawks (6-2, 3-2) feel the same way and feature one of the league’s top tailbacks in Devin Neal. The 5-11, 210-pound junior has rushed for 24 touchdowns in 32 career games. Neal’s averaging a career-high 6.7 yards per carry this season and has snaked into the end zone eight times in eight games.

 “They’re gonna run the ball so we’ve gotta be able to stop the run,” said Cyclone safety Beau Freyler, who leads his team in tackles with 57. “They’ve got really talented skill players; got a good O-line, a good quarterback, so we’re gonna have to plan for all of those things.”

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, will have to devise a scheme to ensure ISU can’t continue to progress in its own running game. Kansas’s defense is allowing an average of 206.8 yards per game on the ground. That number ranks 12th in the Big 12 and it will interesting to see if the Jayhawks choose to load the box or drop more players in coverage in an effort to limit ISU quarterback Rocco Becht’s effectiveness. Recently, most teams have opted to do the latter, but what was once an easy call for opposing defensive coordinators has now become somewhat dicey as the Cyclones’ offense starts to achieve a modest degree of balance.

 “Just the run game complementing the pass game and the pass game complementing the run game,” said ISU junior wide receiver Jaylin Noel, who leads his team in receptions (42). “Those two things just continuing to grow in the offense has made our team special. And also not even just the run game and pass game, but the offense complementing the defense some. Whether that’s flipping field position, or scoring, or just getting a kick to (put) our defense in a good position, I feel like our team’s taken a huge step in that.”

 That leap in terms of playing complementary football is what’s allowed the Cyclones to win four of its first five Big 12 games. Continuing to do so will determine whether ISU is able to beat Kansas before a sell-out crowd at Jack Trice Stadium — a potential outcome that would solidify the Cyclones’ position as a true contender for a top-three conference finish. And that possibility serves as more than “enough” to excite fans as the final month of the regular season beckons. 

 “Playing meaningful games this time of year (at home) makes it really, really special — and not only for our kids,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said. “I know it makes it really special for our fan base, (which has) been really loyal to us.”