Precedence setting: cross country runners win 4th straight title!

“It’s really cool to say that every year you’ve been to Big 12’s, it’s been a championship,” Iowa State women’s cross country runner Katy Moen said matter-of-factly on Saturday the Cyclones won the league championship for the fourth time in a row.

It may, indeed, be cool. But, it’s also never been done previously at Iowa State (dating back to the formation of the Big 12 in 1996).

The Cyclone wrestlers won three straight conference titles (2007-09) for Cael Sanderson. The women’s runners surpassed that streak and now have won more Big 12 titles than any other ISU program.

Iowa State’s victory was its 12th team championship since the league started. That moved the Cyclones past Texas Tech (11) and into a tie with Kansas State for number of championships.

With all five of its scorers in the Top 15 and four in the Top 10, Iowa State was dominant. Its point total (29) was the best in a Big 12 Meet since 2004.

Iowa State’s Crystal Nelson won the race and Moen was runner-up. They were the only runners to break 20:00.

Transfer Margaret Connelly was fourth, freshman Erin Hooker ninth and Perez Rotich 13th. Returning All-American Bethanie Brown missed the meet with an injury but should return to competition soon.

The Cyclone women’s runners are in pretty select company. They are the 20th program to win at least four league championships in succession. The only current streaks that are longer belong to Texas men’s swimming & diving (18), Kansas men’s basketball (10) and Oklahoma State men’s cross country (seven).

“This is legacy (-building) for us,” Head Coach Andrea Grove-McDonough said.

Moen called the accomplishment cool.

I’d classify it as significant and very special.

Some of Sam’s confidence tied to familiarity with the line

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For an offensive line, continuity and familiarity is the foundation for success.

At Iowa State this fall, that continuity has been fundamental to the line’s season-long improvement.

Injuries ravaged last year’s line and there was a weekly personnel shuffle.

ISU has started Jake Campos, Jamison Lalk, Tom Farniok, Daniel Burton and Jacob Gannon across its front wall the last three weeks. The Cyclones have improved on offense in each of those outings.

Coach Paul Rhoads suggested Monday that continuity in practice is as important as continuity in games.

“The practice continuity is awfully important and that was the biggest thing we talked about in-house,” Rhoads said. “It’s (been) the same five guys who have practiced together.”

Who has the continuity benefitted the most? How about QB Sam Richardson?

“Sam know who he’s working with,” Rhoads said of the o-line. “Sam knows how he’s being protected and that checks are being made.”

That leads to confidence for the signal caller.

“A confident quarterback is important to your offense,” Rhoads suggested.

The recent results sure support that contention.

Too many key games upcoming to engage in debate today

The College Football Playoff (CFP) Committee has spoken. Unfortunately, it’s just the first of multiple declarations they’ll make this season.

The men’s and women’s basketball tournament committee model – letting members watch games as they see fit all year long – and then gathering for extended talks and announcing the fields after deliberation is preferred. The worth of these mid-season rankings is up for debate.

With that said, here are some items to ponder (for discussion purposes the committee’s Top 25 is the ultimate measuring stick)…

  • 24 Duke has not faced anyone in the committee’s Top 25 and won’t during the regular season. The same is true for 23rd-rated East Carolina.
  • Ohio State (16th) has not played one team in the Top 25 yet. It will face Michigan State.
  • Notre Dame is the highest ranked (10th) school, which has not beaten any anyone else in the committee’s Top 25.
  • Here are conference records for schools in the current Top 25 vs. fellow Top 25 schools: SEC (8-5), Big 12 (5-7), Pac-12 (5-4), ACC (3-3) and Big Ten (1-2).
  • There’s lots of action still ahead as Auburn, Alabama, Kansas State, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah still have three games each vs. Top 25 schools to end the regular season.
  • Here are the number of games remaining in the regular season for current Top 25 members vs. fellow Top 25 teams: SEC (12), Pac-12 (11), Big 12 (10), ACC (3) and Big Ten (2).

Tuesday night’s announcement sparked all sorts of excitement and hand wringing. Each week, the committee will get a little closer to its final decisions.

In the meantime, take it in. Discuss, deliberate, debate. Enjoy.

Then, get our your remotes and take your pick of Florida State vs. Louisville, TCU vs. West Virginia, Auburn vs. Ole Miss, Arizona vs. UCLA or Utah vs. Arizona State. Those are the match-ups between Top 25 schools this week.

If that’s not enough, consider Kansas State vs. TCU, Baylor vs. Oklahoma, Notre Dame vs. Arizona State, Alabama vs. LSU, Ohio State vs. Michigan State and Oregon vs. Utah. That’s on tap the next week.

In reality, the playoffs have already begun. We’re halfway through the playoffs. It’s called the regular season.

The arguing, too, has begun and it didn’t need to be that way.

Building a belief in close games

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Iowa State has played more close games this season than anyone in the Big 12.

Four of its seven contests have been decided by seven or fewer points. The Cyclones have split those games (wins at Iowa and vs. Toledo and losses to Kansas State and at Texas).

“A big piece of it (winning close games) is confidence,” Coach Paul Rhoads said Monday. “It’s something we’ve highlighted in the last 8-9 days.”

A year ago, Iowa State was 0-4 in close games. The mark was 1-2 in 2012. The last time the Cyclones had had a winning record in such contests was 2011 when they went 5-1.

“We talked about eliminating doubt as we went into the Iowa game,” Rhoads said of a game that his team won in the closing seconds. “One of the ways you eliminate doubt is to have confidence.”

The determination of this year’s squad has put them in position for wins more than half of the time through seven games. With five regular-season games left, it’s likely they’ll have more opportunities.

Building on games like the road win in Iowa City earlier this fall is what Rhoads is trying to do.

The Cyclones have captured victory in close games twice as many times in the opening seven weeks as they did in the prior two full seasons combined.

Belief is gradually increasing.

Bibbs return to health carries offense

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NBC football analyst Cris Collinsworth hammered home a point relentlessly in the second half of New Orleans’ win over Green Bay Sunday night.

He was underlining the impact that tight end Jimmy Graham’s return to the lineup had for the Saints’ offense.

Collinsworth called New Orleans a Super Bowl contender with the 6-7, 265-pound receiving stud back on the field. That is quite the hyperbole for a team that entered the game with a 2-4 record.

Iowa State tight end E.J. Bibbs, a pre-season All-America candidate, impacts the Cyclones similarly.

Bibbs suffered an injury late in fall camp. Fighting through it, Bibbs had 11 catches for 88 yards in the opening four games while ISU averaged 312.0 yards of offense.

In the most-recent three outings – after Bibbs got healthier – Iowa State has gained 433 yards per game and Bibbs has 21 receptions, 175 yards and five touchdowns.

“You’ve got to change things you do defensively (when Bibbs is operating at full strength),” Coach Paul Rhoads said Monday. “If you’re going to bracket him or manage him – if you have additional playmakers – it opens things up.”

No kidding. Bibbs had a career-best 10 catches vs. Texas. Not surprisingly, Aaron Wimberly had the team’s first 100-yard rushing day of the season.

“Opening up E.J. Bibbs as a big athlete is not something folks want to do,” Rhoads said. “Right now, we have enough guys making plays, and with the ball distribution in our offense, we are able to take advantage of that. E.J. gives us that (ability).”

With Graham unable to play at peak level recently because of injury, the Saints beat Tampa Bay in OT and lost to Detroit. With his return Sunday, New Orleans handily defeated the division-leading Packers.

The impact of a great tight end can’t be underestimated.

Best depth Jackson has ever had and here’s why it’s important

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Kevin Jackson begins his sixth year as Iowa State’s wrestling coach with three returning All-Americans.

A pair of them – seniors Kyven Gadson and Michael Moreno – have accomplished nearly everything college wrestling has to offer.

“There’s only one more step to take,” Jackson said in reference to winning an NCAA title. “They’re ready to take it.”

Beyond those two, Jackson can also point to five other wrestlers who have qualified for the NCAA Championship.

But, what excites Jackson more than anything is team depth from 125 pounds through heavyweight. He has never had this type of depth at Iowa State.

Former Olympic champion Ed Banach once told me that the practice room provided the best competition he faced during his undergraduate career. When the lights came on, Banach knew he had prepared better than his opponent because of the people he wrestled daily.

That, in reality, was because of depth.

Jackson, I’ll repeat, likes his team’s depth.

“You’ve got to have that challenge, each and every day by a high-level, high-caliber athlete in your weight class” Jackson said at media day this week. “You’ve got to be challenged each and every day so that depth is definitely allowing us to take that next step.”

Depth in the workout room can’t be overlooked. It’s a basic ingredient in top-shelf performance.

Hard to pin down transitions, but Saturday may have been it

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Teams have identities and reputations based upon their results over an extended period of time.

Then things change and, all-of-a-sudden, a new reputation emerges.

You seldom recognize the transition, however, while it’s happening.

Any coach whose team has made dramatic improvement could probably point to an event (play, game, season) when things clicked, when cultures changed or when confidence in the plan grew.

Could Fred Hoiberg point to a game early in his tenure when his floor spacing principles took hold? Does Bill Fennelly remember when his team really felt empowered to let the three pointers fly?

When Mark Mangino was hired as ISU’s offensive coordinator, I told a friend that he’d be really good. But, I also added that the timeline for the improvement was up-in-the-air.

At the start of fall camp, people would have listed Quenton Bundrage, E.J. Bibbs, Aaron Wimberly, DeVondrick Nealy and Jarvis West as Mangino’s biggest potential playmakers. The Cyclones, experts noted, didn’t have a QB named yet.

Of that list, only Nealy hasn’t missed time due to injury. ISU has also lost three linemen to season-ending injuries.

With that as the backdrop, Mangino carved up the nation’s third-best defense Saturday night. Sam Richardson, a healthier Bibbs, Wimberly, Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery had leading roles.

Is a transition occurring? When we look back some day, will a hard-fought 48-45 game in Austin be a game singled out for its significance?

Stay tuned, but things are trending upwards.

From publicity machine to storytellers

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You may not recognize their names.

Tom Starr, Butch Henry, Kirk Hendrix, Dave Starr and Tom Kroeschell.

If you are a Cyclone athletics fan, however, you would recognize the individuals they worked behind the scenes for.

Earle Bruce, Jeff Hornacek, Johnny Orr, Dan McCarney, Jeff Grayer, Troy Davis, Dr. Harold Nichols, Dwayne Crutchfield, Danny Harris, Max Urick and many, many others.

Starr, Henry, Hendrix, Starr and Kroeschell were Directors of Sports Information at Iowa State in the last 30-plus years. That quintet – along with current director Mike Green – have filled the key department role since the retirement of the legendary Harry Burrell, the school’s SID for 41 years.

At ISU, these men’s duties centered on keeping stats, maintaining records, writing releases, staging news conferences and setting up interviews. They led the publicity arm for athletics.

In recent years – with the emergence of shows like ESPN’s 30:30 series – these SIDs are taking on a new role. Today, they are storytellers for documentary features like those on 30:30 or Cyclones.tv.

After all, who better knew the people like Barry Stevens, Dan Gable, Pete Taylor or George Amundson than their PR guys?

The Cyclones’ five SIDs were on campus last week to renew friendships, see the campus again, attend the Toledo game and tell stories.

Cyclones.tv had the cameras running for more than two hours as host John Walters threw out topic after topic to the group. The conversation was pure gold.

It was an honor to have these men back at ISU for a weekend.

The beneficiary of their visit will be you.

In the coming weeks, the stories they told will be coming your way, via Cyclones.tv. Stay tuned. It will be worth your time.

“Pollspeak”: coaches & media agree the Big 12 is strong

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It is a rare day when college football coaches and the news media covering them are in full agreement.

That was nearly the case this week when the Associated Press (media) and USA Today (coaches) released their college football polls.

The Top 15 schools in each poll mirror one another at every slot but two. The media says Auburn is No. 6 and Michigan State eighth. The coaches flip-flopped those schools. That is the only difference.

What that also means is that the news media and coaches agree that the Big 12 is very strong.

Half of the 10 schools in the Big 12 are included in the To 15 of both national polls. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC have a combined four schools in the Top 15. Like the Big 12, the SEC checks in with five (36% of its membership) schools in the Top 15 and each of them is in the Top 10.

“Every game in this league (the Big 12) is on a national stage and a great opportunity,” Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads said. “You’re talking about a league that has half of its football teams in the Top 15 in the country. That’s a pretty impressive number.”

The College Football Playoff committee, however, has repeatedly stated that it would rank teams according to performance against their own schedules.

Overall conference strength isn’t a major factor since every conference (except for the Big 12 and its round-robin schedule) has unbalanced scheduling. Some of the elite teams don’t face one another.

When everybody plays everybody (the Big 12’s tagline) and the quality of the conference is good (the Big 12’s reality this season), it’s very likely that whoever emerges from the league as its champion will have a strong case for playoff inclusion.

Who knows, a couple of Big 12 teams may get a serious look?

“Competitive” Cyclones just keep battling

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Coach Paul Rhoads said Monday that he continues to discover things about his 2014 team.

When asked to share the biggest things he has learned – without hesitation – Rhoads said “They’re competitive.”

They keep working at it. There is a “we-can-get-it-done” mentality.

Indicative of that attitude is that three of the Cyclones’ best offensive drives this fall came after significant adversity.

  • Against 20th-ranked Kansas State, the Cyclones fell behind 13-0 early. What followed was a nine-play, 85-yard scoring drive that got ISU back in the game. Sam Richardson hit 5-5 passes and the run game averaged nearly seven yards per attempt on the drive.
  • At 21st-ranked Oklahoma State, the Cowboys opened the second half with a kickoff return for a TD, widening their lead to 14 points. Iowa State responded with an 11-play, 71-yard scoring march to make it a seven-point game.
  • Against No. 7 Baylor, the Bears built a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. ISU’s response was an 11-play, 92-yard scoring drive that cut the lead in half. It was the first time BU had allowed points in the opening quarter all season.

Rhoads also noted this team’s desire to be coached and the fact they’ve continued to improve each week. He said the credit goes to the players.

“I told them that ‘coaches yell and scream and do all that to motivate you, but it rarely works,’” Rhoads explained. “It has to come from the players.”

Saturday vs. Toledo, the Cyclones showed a resiliency in the second half and this time it was rewarded with a win.

“It was a lot of fun to watch them in the second half (vs. Toledo) as they drew a line in the sand,” Rhoads said.

Bouncing back has been a season-long storyline and it’s one worth savoring.