Sam’s improvement mirrors that of the team

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The Iowa State football team opened its season against a defending national champion, then faced a nationally ranked foe and now plays an unbeaten team on the road.

It is against that backdrop that Paul Rhoads’ team is trying to get better.

“We made great improvement from week one to week two in all areas and aspects of the program,” Rhoads said Saturday afternoon.

When pressed for specific improvements on a couple of players, Rhoads said he couldn’t speak candidly until he reviewed game video.

One player that Rhoads heaped praise on without the benefit of his TV remote was QB Sam Richardson.

“I think Sam played very well and I just got done telling him that,” Rhoads said shortly after the Kansas State game. “He’s probably played – overall, top-to-bottom – his best two games as our starting quarterback in the last two games.”

Two years ago, Richardson came off the bench for his first extensive college action with no warning. He completed 36-58 throws for 412 yards and seven TDs in the last two regular-season games (at Kansas and vs. West Virginia).

Statistically, those were Richardson’s top career games to date.

Through two games this fall, Richardson has connected on 41-61 passes for 336 yards. He has also run for 90 yards.

And, Rhoads feels he is playing his best football right now. He’s seeing things better, he’s poised and he’s executing.

Like his team, Richardson is getting better. As long as that trend continues, wins will come, too.

The “process” moves into adjustment phase

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Alabama Coach Nick Saban talks frequently about the “process.” He is referring to the development of a football team each season.

Iowa State’s “process” this fall is a bit more complex with six new assistant coaches on the staff.

Through the spring and fall, the Cyclone coaching staff was in the installation phase.

“I’ll remind you that everything we had done up until (last) Saturday was against ourselves,” Head Coach Paul Rhoads said. “It’s about installation.”

Bringing into outside competition – in other words, playing games – is another step in the “process.”

“It’s (hard to know) what you are capable of until you start facing other people,” Rhoads said. “Now, we start learning and adjusting to our strengths and try to minimize what are weaknesses are.”

After several weeks of going head-to-head in fall camp, players start to recognize formations and tendencies. Some real issues don’t start to surface until game action begins.

Rhoads admitted that the staff is “still learning about their guys and what they’re capable of.”

That’s expected.

Now, the “process” moves into a phase where the coaches are identifying “things that are necessary to be successful.”

The next chance to implement adjustments is Saturday when Kansas State visits. It’s all part of the “process.”

Who said that? Really, Rhoads and CJL both did.

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“We need to keep things in perspective. It’s easy to feel discouraged. If you keep it in perspective and realize (how many) new people are on the court compared to who we were playing against (and understand) we’re moving on, we’re getting better, we have talent and we’re going to be good.”

That quote was from Paul Rhoads, right?

No, it was Iowa State volleyball coach Christy Johnson-Lynch. The reference to new people on the “court” probably gave it away.

But, Johnson-Lynch’s message was pretty similar to what Rhoads shared this week.

“It’s important where we are in November / December,” Johnson-Lynch said. “Not so much (where we are) at this time of the year.”

Johnson-Lynch saw her team drop matches to Stanford and Florida State – now ranked 2nd and 8th nationally – last week. The gap in play was not so much physical according to the coach but rather about execution.

“I think (the difference) was more volleyball than physical,” Johnson-Lynch explained. “It was more about executing the pass to the set to the attack.”

Johnson-Lynch remains confident as she and her staff work through different lineups and adjustments. Rhoads pushed the same theory that his team will get better with game experience

“From what I’ve seen in practice and through our evaluations, I do think we’re getting better,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I’ve asked the team to not be disheartened even though it didn’t feel very good over the weekend. I know we’re talented and getting better.”

Rhoads could have said the same thing. And, in his own way, he probably did.

Bundrage out; who will help counter “man” defense?

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After a quick start on offense – leading to a 14-0 lead – Saturday, Iowa State’s offense stalled.

Game-ending injuries to center Tom Farniok and receiver Quenton Bundrage were cited by many as the reason for the lull.

Paul Rhoads noted that the Bison switched to a man-to-man defense in the secondary to counter ISU’s good start.

“We didn’t perform well against man coverage,” Rhoads said. “That’s the change that North Dakota State made after we were moving the ball against its zone concept. Then, we didn’t perform against man coverage.”

That ties back into the loss of Bundrage. The Cyclones’ big-play receiving threat was out. With two other receivers on the sidelines for other issues, Iowa State didn’t handle the man coverage well.

“We didn’t have people open,” Rhoads said. “(Sam Richardson) was going through his progressions very well and much better than he has in the past.”

Bundrage is out for the season. Someone needs to get open in the passing game to loosen things up. There are lots of candidates.

“With Quenton out, some guys need to step up and make plays at that position,” Rhoads said. “If they don’t, then the execution of the football team is going to suffer.”

Part of the in-game challenge is responding to injuries and part of it is adjusting to the opponent.

The Cyclones could see more man coverage and must execute better against it.

They control that option much more so than how the injury bug strikes.

Rhoads shares steadying message Saturday

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Paul Rhoads delivered several messages Saturday after his Cyclones fell to North Dakota State.

In the locker room, he told his team to move on.

In the give-and-take with the news media, he credited NDSU for its fifth win a row against FBS competition.

“They played a great game,” Rhoads said. “They run a great program and they execute very well.”

Rhoads then dissected his team’s play, highlighting several areas that coaches always focus on.

“When you give any team 500-plus total yards and 300 yards rushing, you’re not going to win,” Rhoads said. “When you lose the turnover margin 2-0, you’re not going to win many football games.”

His most important message came on his post-game radio chat with Eric Heft. Rhoads suggested this team would improve more than any of his prior teams from game one to the end of the season.

Rhoads thinks this team can be on an upward-trending line graph the rest of the year because it’s an athletic group and has a desire to be coached. It’s also a squad without much game experience, especially up the middle on defense, in key areas.

The coach saw potential in a good fall camp, but there are areas of concern too. Game reps will be the biggest teacher.

After outings like Saturday, emotions are all over the board. A steady hand from Rhoads will go a long ways in helping his team grow.

A tough loss for sure. But, you can only control what’s ahead. That goes for coaches, players and fans.

CJL: “We embrace this week”

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Georgia’s Mark Richt, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, LSU’s Les Miles, Wisconsin’s Gary Anderson and Iowa State volleyball coach Christy Johnson-Lynch share something in common.

They have no fears as it relates to scheduling.

The Tigers – Clemson’s version (ranked 16th) – meet the Bulldogs (#12) and the Tigers – LSU’s version (13th) – play the Badgers (#14) Saturday in college football season openers.

Johnson-Lynch will guide her volleyball squad into matches against third-ranked Stanford and 13th-rated Florida State to open the regular season this weekend as part of the AVCA Showcase.

“The theme is that ‘we embrace this week,’” Johnson-Lynch said. “These are the types of teams we’ll need to beat to get to the Final Four and win a Big 12 championship.”

Johnson-Lynch has voluntarily chosen to play 15 nationally ranked teams – in the non-conference part of the year – in her tenure. She likes the competition.

The Cyclones have won seven matches against ranked competition outside of its conference or NCAA Tournament schedule. Those victories – LSU (2007), Kentucky (2010), UNI (2010), Florida (2011), Illinois (2012), UNI (2012) and Nebraska (2012) – enhanced the Cyclones’ tourney resume and boosted confidence.

“It’s great for our fans (too),” Johnson-Lynch said. “This is what we want to be… the type of program that is ready to embrace great competition right off the bat.”

Certainly, there is a touch of apprehension when playing the best of the best.

“It causes me a bit of anxiety,” Johnson-Lynch said. “You would prefer to ease into it, but at the same time, it’s a great opportunity for our team.”

Receiving corps includes familiar names, the potentially special and some to keep an eye on

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There is some excitement about the 2014 Iowa State passing game.

Part of the fever is due to the addition of Mark Mangino as offensive coordinator. He has directed a number of productive passing attacks in his career.

Part of the enthusiasm is tied to the returning depth. Six returning players are back after double-figure catches a year ago. E.J. Bibbs and Quenton Bundrage headline the group.

Part of the excitement is because touted recruits Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery join the position group. Each earned four stars from recruiting services as preps.

Head Coach Paul Rhoads, too, has expressed excitement about the receivers.

“We have some depth, we have some speed, we have some talent,” Rhoads said.

Bundrage had nine TDs last year. Bibbs has been called the best TE in the league by ISU coaches. Lazard and Montgomery ooze potential and have great size. Jarvis West is shifty and led the Big 12 in punt returns before getting hurt last year. Aaron Wimberly had 18 catches from the backfield, and Tad Ecby registered 22 catches in ‘13.

Monday, though, Rhoads talked about a receiver who seldom gets talked about.

“Dondre Daley has good body control,” Rhoads began. “Dondre Daley can run. He’s got good length, catches the ball and goes at it aggressively. He’s been extremely coachable through camp and has really risen from a production standpoint.”

Bundrage, Bibbs, West, Wimberly and even Ecby are the familiar names based upon prior production. Lazard and Montgomery have stirred fans’ imaginations. But, don’t sleep on Daley.

“A good problem to have is finding where to put all of those guys,” Rhoads said smiling.

I don’t think the head coach is too worried. He’s thrilled to have so many options.

Rhoads looking to repeat a script

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Paul Rhoads feels that Saturday’s game has special importance.

“I probably place more emphasis on it (the opener) than most coaches,” Rhoads said. “A lot of guys don’t want to do that (because) there are 11 more games to play.”

Rhoads said that losing in the first game a year ago had an impact the following two weeks. Part of that fallout, of course, was due to first-game injuries to Sam Richardson and Tom Farniok.

The head coach feels his team is intent on getting off to a good start Saturday night, but that desire emerged months ago.

“That (attitude) hasn’t been building for just a few days,” Rhoads said of his club’s excitement. “That’s been building for a long time. I’d go back and say it was developing in November and December as we finished off the season (with two wins) and went into off-season.”

In his career, Rhoads has been on college coaching staffs that went to eight bowl games. Each of those bowl teams won its first game of the year. That underlines the importance of the opener for a team with bowl aspirations.

Rhoads’ first game as a college head coach came against North Dakota State. The Cyclones defeated the Bison and advanced to a bowl. The sixth-year head coach is looking to repeat that script.

D: All of the above

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Iowa State’s 2014 football schedule is …
a) Challenging
b) Sort of unusual
c) Pleasing to Coach Paul Rhoads
d) All of the above

The answer is d).

The challenging part is that two-thirds of the opponents are either ranked or receiving votes in the preseason coaches’ and news media’s polls.

The sort of unusual part is that the Cyclones will play a conference game in the second week. That hasn’t happened at ISU since it played Kansas the week after the Eddie Robinson Classic season opener in 2002.

This year’s slate is also unusual in that there are three bye weeks. That has never happened in the modern era. Rhoads’ first two teams had no byes, the ’11 and ’13 squads had two each and the ’12 club had one.

The “pleasing to Coach Paul Rhoads” sentiment is largely based upon the placement of the bye weeks. Off weeks can be disturbing to continuity or perfectly placed to aid performance and preparation.

Rhoads feels this schedule lines up nicely with the approach he has for team conditioning throughout the year. It is based upon balancing rest with heavier workloads in order to “peak” his players at the right time.

The 2014 Cyclones will play three games then get a break. They’ll come back for four games and then have an off week. The team will play two more contests and then have a bye. Iowa State will end the year with three straight games.

“I like our schedule,” Rhoads told an enthusiastic group of supporters at “Meet the Coaches” Night in Des Moines last night.

He also said to the group, “I like this team.” He emphasized that feeling by repeating it as he described every facet of the team.

There has been a lot of excitement generated this fall camp and I’m guessing the Cyclones will, indeed, be peaking on the evening of Aug. 30 at Jack Trice Stadium. The schedule is set up for that.

Big 12 positioned well for football playoffs despite what some say

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To stir up debate, some college football analysts have suggested the lack of a Big 12 Championship game will hurt the league’s prospects for an invite to the College Football Playoff.

In the 16-year history of the Bowl Championship Series, nearly half (15) of the 32 schools that played in the national championship game did not win/have a league title game.

Only seven of the championship game participants – six from the SEC – defeated an opponent ranked in the nation’s Top Ten in their conference title game to get a significant victory right before national title teams were picked.

Of the seven Big 12 schools that participated in a BCS title game, only one defeated a Top Ten opponent in the conference championship game.

• 2000: Oklahoma defeated #8 Kansas State
• 2001: Nebraska did not play in a league title game
• 2003: Oklahoma lost to #15 Kansas State
• 2004: Oklahoma defeated unranked Colorado
• 2005: Texas defeated unranked Colorado
• 2008: Oklahoma defeated #19 Missouri
• 2009: Texas defeated #21 Nebraska

It’s sort of hard to make the argument that a conference championship game is the springboard to the national title game. History doesn’t support that theory.

Twice in the last three years, one of the schools in the national title game made it there without a league championship game. I also wonder how much…

• Tennessee’s win over 23rd-rated Mississippi State in the 1998 SEC Championship Game strengthened its resume for the first BCS championship game.
• Florida State’s win over 20th-ranked Duke in the 2013 ACC Championship Game pushed them into last year’s title match-up.

The point is that league championship games aren’t the end all, be all for playoff consideration.

The BCS (between its voters/polls and computers) chose who they considered to be the top two teams for the title game. Most years, in most people’s opinions, they got it right. The new College Football Playoff Committee will do the same.

The 13-person committee charged with picking the participants for the College Football Playoff should be looking at total resumes. There shouldn’t be concern that the Big 12 won’t receive the proper consideration.