The weeks have passed, the carries have continued to come, and still, the Iowa State offense is collectively searching for answers.
Maybe that answer lies within the offensive line. Maybe the running backs aren’t finding the holes or breaking the tackles. Maybe the pass must setup the run. These are the places Iowa State has looked, and yet the offense will enter Game 5 in Stillwater, Okla., still searching.
The only certainty as the first third of the season moves to the second is that the running game must improve.
“I’m not going to beat a dead horse,” coach Paul Rhoads said. “We all know we’re not running the ball well enough as a football team and there’s a lot of things that contribute to that and we’re working to improve.”
Through four games, Iowa State running backs have rushed for 200 yards on 73 carries, an average of 2.7 yards per carry. Quarterback Sam Richardson has scrambled — and sometimes run by design — for 218 yards on 49 attempts.
Rhoads said early in the season that the running game needed to improve and he reiterated it a few weeks later when it still hadn’t. At halftime Saturday, Iowa State running backs had accumulated 12 yards on 11 carries.
Saturday’s game ended with 28 yards on 20 carries from the backs with Iowa State adding true freshman Martinez Syria to a mix that already included Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy in search of any spark to a lagging running game.
So there Rhoads was Monday, just a few questions after not wanting to beat the dead horse, talking about that horse yet again.
“You’ve got to run the ball and you’ve got to defend the run if you’re going to be successful,” Rhoads said. “We’re not even scratching the surface in doing that.”
And he continued.
“We’re averaging just over 100 yards running a game, and our quarterback, not by design, is our top runner. We’ve got to fix it,” Rhoads said. “It certainly is being addressed. It’s not something that we’re putting our head in the sand about. You’ve got to scheme things up sometimes when you don’t have the horses, pardon my pun, whether that’s smoke-and-mirrors or just leveraging angles.”
Wimberly is supposed to be the breakaway runner, Nealy is a self-described ‘nasty’ runner, and Syria’s redshirt has been burned primarily because at 6-feet and 205 pounds, he provides a physical back that the Cyclones otherwise lack.
Yet Iowa State’s longest run by a running back came when Wimberly — on the 10th play of the season — broke free for a 16-yard touchdown run.
“We still haven’t broken that 80-yard touchdown, that 70-yard touchdown yet and that’s what we’re looking for,” Nealy has said. “We’ve got to just improve in that area.”
Iowa State’s longest run by a non-quarterback last season was a 35-yard rush by Wimberly. It takes going back to the 2012 season — when James White broke a 56-yard run — to find an Iowa State back who took a carry for more than 50 yards.
Where do the Cyclones begin to find that running attack?
“We need to do a better job of blocking, that’s not just the interior five, that’s everybody, receivers are part of that group and the tight ends,” Rhoads said. “And our running backs need to do a better job of running the football. We’ve got to make some folks miss. We need that added into the quotient as well.”
Richardson has an idea, too. After multiple receivers got behind press coverage Saturday with deep routes, Richardson’s passes sailed just too far. Connect on those, he says, and the teams might not be stacking the box with eight defenders.
“I think it comes with success in the pass game,” Richardson said, seeking to provide an answer. “I believe when you can spread a team out — you saw that [Saturday] with Baylor a little bit — I think it makes those runs more effective.”
And the Cyclones will beat the dead horse until it is.
“Obviously I think the running game will improve over the season, but we want to see that out of the running backs and not so much out of me,” Richardson said. “That’s what we’re focusing on on offense.”