Cyclones hope to follow the example of a freshman tailback

Warren, Mike_Iowa_2015_1

At the end of the first half Saturday night, Coach Paul Rhoads sprinted onto the field and put his arm around freshman tailback Mike Warren.

With his halftime radio interview pending, Rhoads was telling the rookie to stay confident and keep his head up. Warren had just rushed for 54 yards in the opening two quarters of his first college start.

His last attempt had advanced ISU to the Toledo 15-yard line – giving his team a chance to take the lead – before a fumble was recovered by the Rockets.

Rhoads needed to remind his freshman before halftime to hang in there and Warren responded.

Iowa State had not run the ball well the first two games of ‘15. Warren was tabbed to start at Toledo and his 126-yard evening included a season-long 41 yarder. He became the first Cyclone freshman in five years (Shontrelle Johnson) to rush for more than 100 yards in a game.

His team, likewise, made progress Saturday. The Cyclones outrushed (207-171), outpassed, (274-138) and outgained (481-309) the Rockets while building up a 16-plus minute advantage in time of possession. However, they didn’t get rewarded in the won-loss column.

Now, Rhoads needs to remind his team to hang in there. They improved in too many areas and showed some resiliency in bouncing back from a deficit.

And, they’ll have an off week to learn from their mistakes and build off the improvement.

The hope is that the team responds as well as its freshman tailback did in the second half.

Turning up the heat and forcing the action


It’s only two games in, but Iowa State’s defense is on a blistering pace for pressuring the quarterback.

The Cyclones had 20 tackles for loss and nine sacks in their opening two games. Nine of ISU’s tackles behind the line came from linebackers, eight from linemen and three from the secondary.

“We have a lot of different people from a lot of different spots to come after the quarterback,” Coach Paul Rhoads said. “We’ve had sacks from a number of different guys – some on stunts, some on blitzes and some on 3-man rushes.”

In their opening two games last fall, the Cyclones managed just five tackles for loss. For that same timeframe (two games), Iowa State had six TFLs in 2013, 11 in 2012, seven in 2011, 10 in 2010 and 11 in 2009.

Twenty, so far this year, stacks up nicely.

In his first six seasons, Rhoads’ teams averaged 4.68 TFLs and 1.2 sacks per game. So, per-game averages of 10 TFLs and 4.5 sacks in 2015 dwarf historical trends for Rhoads’ teams

Dale Pierson (5.5) and Janor Jones (4.0) are leading the way among Cyclones in tackles for loss and they rank first and tied for second among Big 12 players.

A year ago, TCU and Baylor ranked second and third in the league in sacks and they shared the league title. ISU has ranked last among league schools for sacks four times in the last six years.

Defensive pressure is frequently an element among successful teams.

In week one of NFL play, teams which recorded at least three sacks in their openers were 7-2. Seven squads failed to record a sack last week and none of those teams won.

Viewer’s guide: watch the big guys


When a TV network opens its telecast for a football game, it doesn’t take long for them to highlight the “players to watch” on both squads. Seldom are those players linemen.

Whether watching on TV or in-person, most fans follow the ball when it’s snapped. Seldom do fans watch the linemen.

The men in the trenches operate in anonymity. Few people remember their names unless they blow a block or make a sack.

And, yet, it wasn’t surprising to hear what Coach Paul Rhoads said Monday about the key match-ups in Saturday’s game with Iowa.

“I think you’ve got to look at the trenches, especially in this game,” Rhoads said. “Iowa has always been so strong in the offensive and defensive lines and they are again this year. We looked improved on our defensive front and (we’re) still building on the offensive front.”

Most casual fans don’t truly understand line play. It’s hard to decipher. But those who know the game realize its impact. Line play sets the tone.

Frequently, one of the visitors to Iowa State’s practice is Cecil Rhoads, father of Paul and a high school hall of fame coach. During positional work on the practice field, Cecil is almost always camped out by the linemen. Like his son, he knows where the game is controlled.

“I think I’ll keep my eyes close to the line of scrimmage,” Paul Rhoads said of Saturday’s game. “I’m a ball coach and (we know) that’s where games are won and lost.”

Construction in end zone and on d-line get high marks


There has been a lot of construction on the grounds of Jack Trice Stadium in the last 10 months.

Part of it has been on somewhat public display (the complete enclosure of the facility’s south end) and part of it has been quietly retooled inside the Johnny Majors Practice Field (a total overhaul of the team’s front seven on defense).

Both rebuilds have impressed.

The SEZ project opened to rave reviews Saturday night in front of the first crowd of more than 60,000 in stadium history. A sellout of 61,500 marveled at the huge videoboard on that end, the spectacular ring beam and the Sukup End Zone Club.

Thirty-eight Power 5 conference teams opened play in their home venues this weekend and less than half drew 60k. Here is a sampling of the schools that failed to reach 60,000 for their home opener: Oregon, Minnesota, Pitt, Maryland, Arizona, Iowa, NC State, Illinois, Utah, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Northwestern, Syracuse, Indiana, Rutgers, and Miami.

Only one Big Ten school (Nebraska) outdrew the Cyclones in the opener. There were two from the ACC (Clemson and Florida State) and two from the Pac-12 (UCLA and USC) that had larger opening day crowds in their home venues.

The other rebuild was on the ISU defense.  The Cyclones recorded six sacks (their most since the Houston Bowl a decade ago) and 13 tackles behind the line vs. UNI. A “3-4” defense (three linemen, four linebackers) was added to the team’s playbook in the off-season. Dale Pierson stood out with three sacks, but the team’s overall defensive pressure was the dominating factor in the game.

The opening act for both the stadium and the front seven earned a standing ovation. Act II is Saturday afternoon when Iowa visits.

Cyclones’ culture change on display Saturday night

Much has been written and said about a changed attitude within the 2015 Iowa State football team.

“Just like I talked about on media day before the start of camp, I think the culture of this football team is different,” Coach Paul Rhoads reminded the news media Monday. “There is a great resolve in this group from both a leadership and responsiveness (standpoint).”

It’s impossible to define a culture shift statistically, scientifically or mathematically. Rhoads and his staff, however, insist they sensed a shift during the off-season.

The first test will likely occur when Northern Iowa visits Saturday night.

“When adversity comes, which it will, we need to handle it,” Rhoads said. “We need to respond to it whether it occurs in the first quarter or the fourth quarter.”

Challenges are part of the routine. Does it surprise you that defending national champion Ohio State trailed in nine games last season? But, that team had a culture of togetherness and toughness.

Rhoads has worked for months in building that type of attitude in his team.

“It is one of the things we challenged our football team with – both on and off the field – in preparation this season,” Rhoads said.

Certainly, many will focus on quarterback play, defense against the run, sound tackling or a stout rushing attack against the Panthers. The stats will explain how the Cyclones performed in those areas.

But, their responsiveness to eventual hardship will be the first indicator of how much the culture has really improved.

Optimism rising for “no name” defense


Back in 1972, defensive coordinator Wally Burnham was just starting his coaching career.

That was the same year the Miami Dolphins registered an undefeated season on the way to winning Super Bowl VII. The headliners on that team were Griese, Morris, Warfield and Csonka. Miami also had an under-publicized defense – nicknamed the “No Name” Defense – that produced consistently without fanfare.

Burnham looks at his 2015 Cyclone defense and, perhaps, sees some similarities.

“We do not have a superstar on defense,” Burnham said after the team’s final scrimmage Saturday. “We have 18-19 kids we feel real good about.”

Injuries and other issues wiped out the defense’s front seven a year ago. The Cyclones of last season had a “no name” defense by year’s end but it was because of attrition.

Paul Rhoads and his staff hit the recruiting trail in the off-season to find some junior college defenders ready to make an impact. You likely don’t know their names yet, but Tucker, Jones, Thomas and several others will have prominent roles this fall.

“Here is what I’m excited about,” Burnham said. “They love to play. It’s got to be a team thing (on defense) and that’s what they have bought into.”

The chance for these defenders—largely unknown to fans right now—to make name for themselves is just around the corner with the season opener just 13 days away.

Curious coach wonders who the hitters will be

Hurtt, Victoria_Oklahoma2014-15-1

For the fifth time in six years, Iowa State has been picked to finish as league runner-up (to Texas) in the Big 12 Volleyball Preseason Poll.

Although Coach Christy Johnson-Lynch is accustomed to that lofty position, the lack of Cyclones on the preseason all-league team (only libero Caitlin Nolan was honored) caught her attention.

“The interesting thing about our team right now is that we were picked second in the Big 12 but we only had one player on the preseason All-Big 12 team and that was our libero,” Johnson-Lynch said.

“(There were) no hitters. That’s really curious to me.”

Although the Cyclones return most of their players from a year ago, the loss of hitter Victoria Hurtt (more than 1,000 career kills) is the most significant. Most great teams, according to Johnson-Lynch have some “go to” players.

“From what I’ve seen, the best teams have a couple of players ready to get 4-5 kills per game every night,” the 11th-year coach said. “To get picked second in the poll and have no hitters says that we have a lot of good players but who is going to emerge?”

Johnson-Lynch is excited about the prospects vying for a shot to be the “go to” players but she feels that filling that gap will determine the success of the season.

“I’m confident we’ll have a couple (hitters) on that All-Big 12 team at the end of the year,” Johnson-Lynch said. “(But right now) I’m as curious as you are as to who that player will be.”

Richardson’s impact on run game could be significant

Richardson, Sam B14OU2

Like most football coaches, Paul Rhoads wants to see his team run the ball effectively.

Even the elite passing teams today want to run the ball. Oregon, Baylor and TCU all ranked in the Top 10 nationally for passing a year ago and each averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game.

The common denominator for those schools is a spread attack. The Ducks and Horned Frogs both had QBs with more than 700 yards rushing in 2014.

The Cyclones top returning rusher this fall is quarterback Sam Richardson (421 yards). The only tailback with collegiate experience on the roster is Tyler Brown (24 career carries).

With the running skill of Richardson and the lack of a proven ground gainer at tailback, Rhoads was asked if Richardson could lead his team in rushing this season.

“I think that is conceivable,” Rhoads said. “Sam will be called upon to run and ad-libbing to run is a vital part of our offense.”’s Dennis Dodd wrote a recent story about the return of effective ground gains in college football. His theory included a reliance on running QBs due to the influx of spread offenses.

Dodd cited some statistical research from SportSource Analytics that indicated the average yards per carry at the quarterback position has risen from 1.85 yards (in 2005) to 2.83 (2014) in the last decade. Additionally, the percentage of rushing yards gained by a QB has increased from 10.57% (2005) to 15.28% (2014).

Richardson averaged 3.4 yards per carry and gained 28.3% of the Cyclones’ rushing yardage last fall.

Rhoads like the potential of Richardson on the run.

“He’s an athletic, fast player,” Rhoads said. “You’ve got to utilize that source to be effective.”

There’s been a focus in camp about developing a more consistent run game. And, should the QB be the top ground gainer that wouldn’t be the anomaly it once was.

Looking for a favorable deal in 2015

One of the questions always posed to the head coach on media day is “how many freshmen will play?”

Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads said just one frosh is likely to play and that is at running back where the Cyclones are very inexperienced.

There are, however, eight junior college prospects (three on offense, five on defense) in the two-deep lineup who have never played in a game for the Cyclones. Health-permitting, they’ll likely all play. JC players are more seasoned than preps and ISU has put on premium on recruiting them that last couple of years.

“They’re experienced players and have a higher level of maturity as they enter the program,” Rhoads said. “We’ve needed to take advantage of that the last couple years and are (hopeful of) seeing the fruits of that right now. The plan is in place to continue to work that group and hopefully improve because of that.”

In the last two years, ISU has been bitten hard by the injury bug.

“Without a doubt, our depth as been exposed,” Rhoads said. “I don’t know comparatively speaking to other programs and numbers, but decimated is an accurate word when you look at our past in that regard.”

Rhoads has coached ISU to three bowl games. In those seasons, the Cyclones were able to keep their upper classmen healthy. Consider the number of underclassmen who earned starts each season.

  • 2012 Liberty Bowl – sophomores combined to start 23 games, freshmen just five
  • 2011 Pinstripe Bowl – sophomores started 44 games, freshmen 24
  • 2009 Insight Bowl – sophomores started 57 games, freshmen just five

Last season, Iowa State had 83 starts by sophomores and 42 by freshmen. Too many vets had too many trips to the training room for extended time away from the field.

“There will be a lot of new faces on the field in 2015 but we’ve seen enough of that group already that we feel we’ll be better,” Rhoads said. “How competitive they can get and how far along they’ll come will depend on the confidence level that grows in August and during the season.”

With the influx of JC players in recent years, Iowa State hasn’t had this much experienced depth in a while. On paper at least, the Cyclones appear to be better equipped to deal with missed playing time this fall.

“You need a little luck (with injuries),” Rhoads said. “Health is the hand we’d like to be favorably dealt as we go into the 2015 season.”

The drama on the 18th at Southern Hills brings back memories

Fernandez, Scott_BI_14_2

The 2001 U.S. Open Golf Championship was staged at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.

I worked the event as a media liaison on the 18th green. That difficult par-4 earned quite the reputation because of its incredibly challenging green.

Undulating and fast, the putting surface was the topic of much debate during the Open.

Mark Brooks, who was tied for the lead in the final round, reached #18 first but three-putted to fall out of a lead that he shared with Retief Goosen.

Several groups later, Goosen and then co-leader Stewart Cink approached 18. Cink hit his ball over the green and then three-putted for a double bogey.

A par for Goosen would clinch the title, but he missed a two-footer. The South African did, eventually, win a Monday playoff with Brooks.

But the drama from 18 was something to remember. Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon and the Big 12 Men’s Golf Championship at Southern Hills.

The Cyclones found themselves two strokes ahead of 20th-ranked Oklahoma State in the race for fourth place.

Amazingly, Cowboy Zachary Olsen converted a 40-footer on the treacherous 18th. Iowa State’s Nick Voke lipped out a seven-footer for birdie. The margin between the Cyclones and Cowboys was one.

In the final pairing, Okie State’s Jordan Niebrugge defied the odds again and dropped another 40-footer for birdie. Match – between ISU and OSU – tied.

Cyclone senior Scott Fernandez, who had birdied two of the prior three holes, had a 15-foot try for birdie on the 18th. The native of Spain calmly rolled in the critical putt and ISU had its second-best finish since the Big 12 was formed.

Iowa State – ranked 42nd nationally – bested Oklahoma State (20th), Oklahoma (10th) and Baylor (17th) in the 2015 meet. It was an eventful championship.

And, once again, it all came down to the action on the 18th green at Southern Hills.