Iowa State beat Iowa at Kinnick last season, which cannot be repeated often (or loudly) enough.
Cyclones fans had to have been feeling pretty good a few games into last season. Iowa State rebounded after a bad loss to North Dakota State, and a decent offense led by then-junior Sam Richardson led Kansas State in the fourth quarter, minimized damage against Baylor and Oklahoma State, outlasted a Toledo squad that would finish 9-4, and took Texas to the wire at DKR.
With winnable games against Kansas and Texas Tech on the schedule Iowa State was within one patented Paul Rhoads upset of either Oklahoma, West Virginia, or TCU of bowl eligibility. However, injuries set in, and . . .
First seven games: Avg. Scoring Margin: -7.9 (2-5)
Last five games: Avg. Scoring Margin: -26.6 (0-5)
. . . they trailed off.
(Iowa State, please stop scheduling FCS teams that are better than you. I’m sure Savannah State or Valparaiso needs a game.)
Regular competition for bowl eligibility in a loaded Big 12 is, frankly, Iowa State’s ceiling. But Rhoads has established a brand for himself as a charismatic coach occasionally capable of toppling a bigger-name program (Nebraska in 2009, #22 Texas in 2010, #2 Oklahoma State in 2011, #13 TCU in 2012). Adding Mark Mangino, architect of Kansas’ 2007 Orange Bowl-winning team, as offensive coordinator was a boon. Now, Rhoads and Mangino probably only have one year left to show marked improvement. (A right shame if you ask me, Rhoads has been the guy Iowa State needs.)
SAM DESERVED BETTER
I think most of us would feel pretty darn good to have our quarterbacks perform as efficiently as Richardson did in his first year running Mangino’s spread-to-pass system. Despite injury and a virtually nonexistent run game, Richardson completed 56% of his passes at a clip of 5.2 yards per attempt. Those aren’t mind blowing numbers, but it allowed the Cyclones to improve from 64th to 40th in offensive efficiency in Mangino’s first year.
Sadly, Richardson’s accuracy decreased on each subsequent down, but 60% and 5.6 per attempt on first puts you in decent shape for second and third, and gets even a pair of runners who barely averaged four yards per carry into a place where they can be effective. Richardson wasn’t a bad runner himself, having led the team in yards per carry. Sophomore Tyler Brown is the Clones’ leading returning running back, who tallied 4.5 yards per tote in limited action in 2014. The speedy Brown doesn’t have the physicality to be a grinder (5’11”, 186) but Mangino won’t call on him to do so. The better question would be if Brown can catch passes out of the backfield, as no current Iowa State tailback was targeted with a pass in 2014.
Fortunately, Iowa State returns several experienced wideouts. Former four-star recruit Allen Lazard was Richardson’s favorite target as a freshman in 2014, and while he could definitely stand to catch a few more of the balls slung his way (49.% catch rate), he was usually good for a first down per catch and will be better this fall. Quenton Bundrage, who led the 2013 Cyclones in receiving yards, catches, and touchdowns, returns after missing 2014 with an ACL injury. He might be the best hope Iowa State has for a big play threat, an offensive element sorely missing in 2014. D’Vario Montgomery led the team in catches in 2014 and at 6’6, 236, poses a matchup problem for just about any defensive unit.
Iowa State badly needs to turn some of these efficient plays into big plays if they want to make a leap in 2015, but unless one develops, without a dependable running game, the Cyclones are susceptible to simply being waited out by opposing defenses. And fellow Big 12 offenses aren’t shy about getting into shootouts.
EXPERIENCE UP FRONT, I GUESS . . ?
The Cyclones return all but one starter on the defensive line, but that may or may not be cause for celebration, as this rushing defense was not good, ranking near the bottom of the FBS in nearly every statistical category. I try to be optimistic in these previews but sometimes the most optimistic line I can take is the old standby “they can’t really get worse.”
But improvement will require one of these guys to step up. A pair of senior ends, Trent Taylor and Dale Pierson will need to lead their defensive line and improve on their numbers from 2014.
Meanwhile the linebackers almost completely reset, save for Luke Knott, who was good for an interception and a handful of tackles for loss in 2014. The heavily-bearded Levi Peters returns from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered against Kansas State, along with Kane Seeley. Iowa State will need these guys’ production to match their experience if they’re going to have any hope of improvement.
On the plus side, if teams decide to pass, they’ll face a secondary that’s occasionally disruptive, if not totally effective. Sophomore Kamari Cotton-Moya returns after leading the Cyclones in tackles as a freshman, and together with Nigel Tribune and Kenneth Lynn, comprised a trio that broke up 31 passes and intercepted seven. All three return but Lynn has since moved to wide receiver. (One might argue that Iowa State has plenty of bodies at receiver and needs all the defensive help it can get, but you do you, Iowa State.)
Don’t get too excited, now: the Cyclones gave up more passes of 20+ yards (16) than almost anyone in the country. These guys might slow down the weaker offenses of the Big 12, but sadly, there aren’t many of those.
CYCLONES’ STRONGEST UNIT
Cole Netten is a steady foot on field goals (nine of ten inside 40 yards). He and Holden Kramer punted by committee and were all but certain to pin an opponent deep. For a defense that frankly needs a lot of help, the value of pinning teams deep can’t be overstated.
STEAL SOME WINS
Rhoads has built his reputation as a motivator and occasional upset thief. He’s probably the coach Iowa State needs, but he’s on as hot a preseason seat as one can find. So if he needs to grab a few job-saving wins, where do they come from? FCS Northern Iowa is no slouch. Iowa and Toledo both project much higher than the Clones. Kansas comes to Ames along with TCU, Texas, and Oklahoma State. Are any of those teams ripe for an upset? Because Iowa State probably isn’t beating Baylor, Oklahoma, or Kansas State on the road. If this is Rhoads’ final season at Iowa State, maybe he can at least ruin someone else’s day on his way out.