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

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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

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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

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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.”

CBSSports.com’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

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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

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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.

Unprecedented Back2Back wins in Cy-Hawk Series

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The Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Series came down to the bottom of the seventh inning. Literally.

When Stacy Roggentien recorded her 10th strikeout with a runner on first base to end the seventh inning, the Cyclone softball team’s 5-4 win meant the coveted Cy-Hawk Series Trophy would stay in Ames.

Winning the series two years in a row had never been done previously in the competition, which dates back to 2004. The schools alternate hosting eight of the 10 events (two are at neutral sites) on an annual basis, so it had been unachievable to win the series in consecutive seasons.

That changed last night. It is, once again, a Cyclone state.

The 2014-15 series included big wins, blowouts and brilliant performances on both sides.

Iowa State hosted just two events and won both.

  • Soccer – Ally Williamson’s goal in the 75th minute was the game winner in a 2-1 decision.
  • Volleyball – After two close sets, the Cyclones held Iowa to an .029 hitting percentage in the final stanza for a 3-0 sweep.

The schools had neutral site meetings at the regional meet cross country meets in Peoria, Ill.

  • Women’s Cross Country – All five Cyclone runners finished before the first Hawkeye competitor as Iowa State won the regional meet. UI was 13th.
  • Men’s Cross Country – All five ISU point scorers placed in the Top 32 as the Cyclones finished third. Iowa was seventh.

In events at Iowa City, there were three memorable performances.

  • Football – Cole Netten connected on a 42-yard field goal with 0:02 left in a 20-17 triumph.
  • Men’s Basketball – ISU had a 21-2 run to open the second half and coasted behind a 19-point performance from Abdel Nader.
  • Softball – Ally Cappaert hit a game-winning home run in the fifth inning to close out the series with a one-run victory.

Savor the win. A chance for a three-peat doesn’t begin until next fall.

A perspective on perspective

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Finding perspective in times of frustration is hard.

That might be where many in the Cyclone fan base find themselves after the opening games of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s totally understandable.

The mechanics of Iowa State’s loss to UAB were rooted in rebounding and shooting.

  • The Blazers had 19 offensive rebounds against a program that led the Big 12 in both defensive rebounds (26.78 per game) and defensive rebounding percentage (.692).
  • ISU made just 42.9% of its two-point attempts after topping its league by nearly five full percentage points in two-point shooting.

It was a bit of an outlier game for the Cyclones and, unfortunately, it came during the one-and-done part of the season.

Those are facts. So, too, is it a fact that ISU won 25 games, earned it second Big 12 Tournament Championship in a row, registered more wins vs. Top 50 schools than anyone in the nation and delighted us throughout a long winter.

The low feelings will eventually disappear and anticipation for next year will soon take over.

That is a perspective that won’t come naturally for some.  But, in the end, appreciating all of the fun excitement is the best tonic for moving forward.

Our Coach is Cooler than Your Coach

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When Iowa State Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard underwent triple bypass surgery last week, heart condition became a hot topic around Cyclone athletics.

Basketball coach Fred Hoiberg, himself a pacemaker user, found himself talking about stress levels – his own and that of his boss – as the Cyclones won three nail biters to capture their second Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament Championship in a row.

Each of the games featured a comeback of double digit points. Reporters covering the tournament marveled at the composure of the Cyclones. They never got rattled despite challenging deficits.

That coolness or calmness can be traced back to Hoiberg. That’s how he handles his business. As Pollard begins his recovery from the heart attack he suffered, Hoiberg would be a good role model to follow. Stress never seems to enter Hoiberg’s domain. If it does, he doesn’t show it. Ever.

The love affair that Cyclone Nation has with Hoiberg is well grounded. T-shirts – you know, the ones with “Our Coach is Better Looking than Your Coach” and “Our Coach Dances Better than Your Coach” – dotted the crowd in the Sprint Center just like they did all season in Hilton Coliseum.

The next one ought to be “Our Coach is Cooler (or calmer) than Your Coach.”

That’s a fact, too, and it’s a great trait to emulate.

Recent runner-up finishes boost Cyclones

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Several recent second-place finishes vaulted Iowa State’s athletics program into fourth place of the Big 12 all-sports standings.

Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma currently sit 1-2-3 in the standings with the Cyclones and Baylor completing the first division.

Iowa State’s best-ever finish in the league’s composite performance rankings is fifth, set last year.

The ISU wrestlers became league runners-up over the weekend – joining the women’s swimming and diving team, which did the same last week – based upon its championship finish.

Fred Hoiberg’s basketball team completed its regular season with a 12-6 record in the nation’s toughest conference. The Cyclones tied Oklahoma for second place, its best finish in 14 seasons.

Eleven Big 12 sports have completed their regular seasons in 2014-15 and eight of the ISU teams – men’s & women’s basketball, men’s & women’s cross country, men’s indoor track, women’s swimming & diving, volleyball and wrestling – posted upper division finishes.

Below are the current Big 12 all-sports standings. The number associated with each school is its percentile ranking for its composite program:

Texas – .753
Oklahoma State – .725
Oklahoma – .653
Iowa State – .616
Baylor – .613
Kansas – .536
West Virginia – .507
Kansas State – .480
Texas Tech – .367
TCU – .346