AMES, IOWA — Paul Rhoads stood at the front of the room for his postgame news conference Saturday night with more questions than he had answers, but there was one certainty from the seventh-year Iowa State coach.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Rhoads said flatly.
Those seven words needed little explanation.
Iowa State took a touchdown lead to halftime Saturday against rival Iowa behind an offense that gained 244 yards on 31 plays. The Cyclones then watched that lead disappear with little recourse in the second half, going scoreless on 31 plays that totaled 66 yards in an eventual 31-17 loss that sent the CyHawk Trophy back east.
Afterward, Rhoads and Iowa State had a list of questions.
“Absolutely we’re disappointed,” Rhoads said. “We played a tremendous first half and there’s no reason we should have played the way we did in the second half. So first of all you have to find those answers. Why did we [play poorly]? Was conditioning a factor? Was it play selection? Was it execution? There are reasons there. It’s our job as a program to discover them and not allow them to happen again.”
Iowa and Iowa State exchanged field goals in the first quarter before the Cyclones pushed ahead early in the second when quarterback Sam Richardson hit receiver Quenton Bundrage in the middle of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.
The Iowa State defense quickly forced a three-and-out and the offense moved across midfield to the Iowa 49 before being faced with fourth and inches and a decision with 8:42 remaining in the half. Following a timeout, Iowa State chose to punt.
“We were playing really good defense and had confidence in our defense to keep doing that,” Rhoads said of the decision. “We made a group decision as a staff — a unanimous group decision as a staff.”
Iowa State pinned Iowa at its own seven-yard-line on the punt and defensive end Dale Pierson nearly capitalized when he wrapped up Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard in the end zone before the shifty signal-caller wiggled to his own one to avoid the safety.
Beathard scrambled for 44 yards on the next play, Iowa State lost defensive tackle Demond Tucker for the game to a sprained ankle two plays later and Iowa eventually tied the game at 10, though the Cyclones would go to the break with a touchdown lead after Jauan Wesley later reeled in a highlight reel 29-yard one-handed touchdown catch.
From there, things spiraled downward.
Iowa State went three-and-out on the first drive of the second half and Iowa went down the field quickly on the ensuing drive for a touchdown and the 17-all tie. Richardson went 7-of-20 in the second half for 61 yards while the rushing attacked mustered five lone yards on 11 carries in the final two quarters.
“It was very frustrating, actually,” said Wesley, who finished with four catches for 76 yards in the loss. “We had a lot of plays, a lot of miscues, a lot of things we could have capitalized on. We failed to do that.”
Take a series of events late in the fourth quarter, for example.
With Iowa facing third and 21, the Cyclones surrendered a 48-yard pass across midfield. Later in the drive the defense rebounded, forcing and recovering an Iowa fumble at its own seven to give the offense a chance for a go-ahead drive.
“I thought it was game time then,” said linebacker Jordan Harris, who recovered the fumble. “I thought we were going to go down and put the game away."
The Iowa State offense did string together its longest second-half drive as Richardson hit Allen Lazard on consecutive plays for 25 total yards before a rushing attempt was stuffed and two passes fell incomplete to force a punt after seven plays for 30 yards.
“We got a couple first downs or at least pushed it out [around] midfield and then stubbed our toe again,” Rhoads said. “[We] never could put together enough series or first downs or put together big plays in the second half to get that anchor off us.”
Iowa came up with the big play with 2:14 remaining when Beathard connected with receiver Riley McCarron on a 25-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead score. After Richardson was intercepted on the third play of the following drive, Iowa sealed the win with one final touchdown.
“We got too complacent in the second half. We had a seven-point lead, it’s not that much, especially when you’re playing a Big Ten football team,” Harris said. “We got a little comfortable and took our foot off of the gas. Not as a whole, but just a few places here and there.”
So Iowa State was left searching for answers to questions, including one offered up to Welsey as he stood with a large crowd surrounding him: Did it feel in the locker room like you let one slip away?
This particular question did have an immediate answer.
“We most definitely let one get away from us,” Wesley said.
Now Iowa State begins its quest to answer the rest.