Thanks to the long, holiday weekend, I was able to restrain myself from making too many rash judgements following Iowa State's nondescript 17-10 victory in-state foe Northern Iowa.
But one thing is still abundantly clear to me: if the Cyclones are to make it four straight bowl game appearances in 2003, Coach Dan McCarney will earn every single penny of his new salary.
That's not to say the season is hopeless, and I'm sure Northern Iowa will prove that last year's losing record was a fluke and it will be back in the thick of the Division I-AA playoff hunt.
However, Big 12 teams shouldn't "hang on" to beat lower division opponents…ever. Unless they're called Baylor or Kansas. ISU is clearly a couple of notches above those bottom-feeders, which is why Saturday night's result was so disappointing.
There were three things to like about what could otherwise be described as a lackluster opener. First, I thought Austin Flynn played well, despite an overly conservative gameplan (more on that in a moment) and mediocre – at best – blocking from his offensive line. The things Austin didn't do well, like not keeping his head downfield when he's scrambling for instance, are items that will improve with experience. But it's easy to see why he was so highly touted coming out of high school.
Second, the special teams play was solid in all facets, and as a Cyclone fan you know that's not something to take for granted. Third, Michael Wagner took the challenge of being demoted to second string in favor of a redshirt freshman and responded by coming off the bench to rush for 87 yards.
Beyond that, I was excited by little else.
Let's face it, most of us left Ames on Saturday night wondering how the Cyclones could stretch its winning-streak to six straight over the University of Iowa in two weeks. For ISU to walk out of Jack Trice Stadium holding a six-pack of Cy-Hawk Trophies five things have to change/improve.
1. ISU's playmakers need to make plays.
That's normally a cliché, but watching the Iowa and Iowa State games on Saturday this first item was the biggest difference between the effort of the two teams, in my opinion. The Hawkeyes gave up some yardage, but their defense shutdown Miami of Ohio with either a sack or a turnover when it counted. Their running game may not have been consistently great, but it still turned in a couple of big plays. Nathan Chandler was only asked to make a handful of plays, and nearly every time he was called upon he did that. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for ISU.
The defense held UNI to just 267 yards, but forced zero turnovers. Jamaul Montgomery dropped what would have been a sure-fire 55-yard touchdown pass. Jordan Carstens had zero sacks and zero tackles-for-loss. Marc Timmons dropped an interception that might have made turned the momentum of the game in the Cyclones' favor. The offensive line consistently failed to get any movement at the line of scrimmage.
Montgomery, Carstens, and Timmons are seniors who have played winning football the last three years. They need to make more plays if they want to make it four straight years.
2. Defensive front must assert itself.
Even before the dismal injury to Tyson Smith, I wasn't all that impressed with what we saw from ISU's defensive front. It certainly did not live up to its advanced billing. Carstens was consistently double-teamed, but I can't believe getting double-teamed by UNI is the same as getting double-teamed by Oklahoma and Texas. And if Carstens is being double-teamed, shouldn't Nick Leaders have a field day facing one-on-one blocking from a I-AA squad?
Against a Division I-AA foe, ISU's defensive line combined for just one tackle-for-loss and one sack. Folks, that's just not going to cut it the rest of the season. When Carstens, Leaders, Cephus Johnson, and Smith lined up at the beginning of the game, I thought it was the most physically impressive defensive front I've seen since I started covering ISU four years ago. Now they just need to play like it. The Cyclones couldn't get any pressure on the quarterback without blitzing, and that's not a good thing.
3. Overcome the loss of Tyson Smith.
If I would have walked up to you after Media Day and told you that ISU would go into the Iowa game without Bob Montgomery and Tyson Smith what would have been your reaction? Right, you should wet yourself.
Regardless, that's exactly what is likely to happen. As of today, it appears the plan is to start true freshman Jason Berryman at Tyson's vacated defensive end position. However, I would like to suggest another course of action.
I would move Tim Tebrink back to defense and start him at tackle next to Leaders and move Carstens to end. Tebrink has made plays at defensive tackle before and has plenty of experience. He's at least adequate there. Plus, if you move Carstens outside he can't be consistently double-teamed by a couple of 300-pound offensive linemen. You can always use Berryman as a situational pass-rusher, but it's doubtful he's up to playing every down against the run and pass at this point.
4. Open up the offense.
I thought Ben Bruns was right on during the postgame show on the Cyclone Radio Network. ISU's offense was overly conservative, thus leaving four pretty good wide receivers standing around with little to do.
By my recollection, the Cyclones only threw on first down one time and the result was a beautiful 46-yard completion to Lance Young. That's way, way, way too conservative. Nearly every time Flynn went under center on second down he faced 2nd-and-7 or longer and that's just too much of a hole to dig for a redshirt freshman quarterback.
Contrast that with the gameplan Colorado employed against in-state rival Colorado State, whom the Buffaloes have struggled against the past few seasons. Knowing the Rams expected them to stick to their patented ground game, the Buffs went to the air early and often behind first-time starting quarterback Joel Klatt, who finished with 402 yards passing and four touchdowns.
I understand the goal was to establish confidence in the running game against a seemingly inferior foe, but keeping the defense off balance by throwing more on first down could aid in that quest.
5. Take Bob Montgomery to see a faith healer.
ISU's run blocking had difficulty generating creases, let alone holes, for the backs to run through against the Panthers. Now, some of the problem was tentative running from Stevie Hicks, who rushed for just 19 yards on 12 carries. But Flynn faced a lot of pressure in the pocket as well in passing situations.
This unit was a disappointment, and wasn't physical enough against Northern Iowa from the very first series of downs. It sorely needs its All-Big 12 guard to return ASAP.
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Weekly Top 25
Below is my top 25 if I had a vote in the Associated Press college football poll.
1. USC (1-0)
This week—beat #6 Auburn, 23-0.
Next week—BYU (1-0)
2. Texas (1-0)
This week—beat New Mexico State, 66-7
3. Michigan (1-0)
This week—beat Central Michigan, 45-7
Next week—Houston (1-0)
4. Oklahoma (1-0)
This week—beat North Texas, 37-3
Next week—at Alabama (1-0)
5. Ohio State (1-0)
This week—beat #17 Washington, 28-9
Next week—San Diego State (1-0)
6. LSU (1-0)
This week—beat Louisiana-Monroe, 49-7
Next week—at Arizona (1-0)
Next week—Kent State (1-0)
8. Miami, Fla. (1-0)
This week—beat Louisiana Tech, 48-9
Next week—#24 Florida (1-0)
9. Kansas State (2-0)
This week—beat Troy State, 41-5
Next week—McNeese State (1-0)
10. Georgia (1-0)
This week—beat Clemson, 30-0
Next week—Middle Tennessee State (0-1)
11. North Carolina State (1-0)
This week—beat Western Carolina, 59-20
Next week—at Wake Forest (1-0)
12. Florida State (1-0)
This week—beat North Carolina, 37-0
Next week—Maryland (0-1)
13. Virginia Tech (1-0)
This week—beat Central Florida, 49-28
Next week—James Madison (1-0)
14. Virginia (1-0)
This week—beat Duke, 27-0
Next week—at South Carolina (1-0)
15. Notre Dame
Next week—Washington State (1-0)
Next week—Bowling Green (1-0)
17. Tennessee (1-0)
This week—beat Fresno State, 24-6
Next week—Marshall (1-0)
18. Nebraska (1-0)
This week—beat #24 Oklahoma State, 17-7
Next week—Utah State (0-1)
19. Oregon State (1-0)
This week—beat Sacramento State, 40-7
Next week—at Fresno State (0-1)
20. Auburn (0-1)
This week—lost to #8 USC, 23-0
Next week—at Georgia Tech (0-1)
21. Arizona State
Next week—Northern Arizona (1-0)
22. Wisconsin (1-0)
This week—beat West Virginia, 24-17
Next week—Akron (0-1)
23. Minnesota (1-0)
This week—beat Tulsa, 49-10
Next week—Troy State (0-1)
24. Florida (1-0)
This week—beat San Jose State, 65-3
Next week—at #8 Miami, Fla. (1-0)
25. Iowa (1-0)
This week—beat Miami (Ohio), 21-3
Next week—Buffalo (0-1)
Out—Maryland (0-1) & Oklahoma State (0-1).