Could DeKalb Trip Be Turning Point?

I love sports fans. Especially the kind that "live" and "die" with every victory and loss. You probably know exactly what I mean. When the Cyclones win a big game, the sun shines a little brighter, your food tastes a little better and the jerk at your job bothers you a little less.

When the Cyclones lose a big game, it can put a black cloud over your entire day, week, month…or sometimes for much longer. For example, simply mention Lafester Rhodes' name to a Hawkeye fan and see what kind of reaction you get. Or bring up Marv Seiler to a Nebraska fan. One of my personal favorites is to mention Gary Anderson's name to a Viking fan.

You could even try bringing up Jeff Hornacek's name to a Miami (of Ohio) fan…if there were any in existence.

The sting of a tough loss—or a loss in a big game—seems to reach sports fans at a personal level. It's as if your favorite team and its coaching staff have failed YOU. And now YOU have to pick up the pieces of your "sports life" and find a way to move on.

Of course, that's a ridiculous way to live your life. It's immature. Stupid even. But, that's the emotional roller coaster sports fans are stuck with…and perhaps addicted to.

I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying that I understand it.

The sad thing, I suppose, is that many fans get more upset with the losses than they enjoy the victories. Considering that sports are designed to be a form of entertainment, that sure seems backwards, doesn't it?

So, just what the heck am I getting at?

I talked to several—and I mean several—Cyclone fans this week who were ready to throw in the towel on the 2003 football season. All because of a 40-21 loss to the Hawkeyes last Saturday. That's all it took. Here are some of the comments I heard…

"McCarney needs to go…He'll never take the program to that next level."

"The offensive line and special teams are horrible. I'm not sure they can win another game."

"I hate everything. My life sucks. The Hawkeyes are the root of all evil." (Paraphrasing on that one.)

And I'm thinking…wait a minute, people. Let's take a step back, clear our heads a little bit and look at the big picture for a few minutes.

In Coach McCarney's last three seasons, plus the first three games of 2003, Iowa State has a record of 25-16. That's a 61% winning percentage. And it includes three consecutive bowl seasons.

Simply rewind to the last four seasons under Jim Walden (1991-94), which hasn't been all that long ago. Iowa State compiled a record of 10-32-2 during those years, which was a dismal 29% winning percentage, with ZERO bowl games and a loss at home to UNI.

Be honest. What if someone had asked you when McCarney was hired in 1995, "Would you be happy with a three-year-plus run in which ISU won 61% of its games and went to three bowl games?" How quickly would you have signed up for that?

Now, consider the fact that this successful string began just six years after the 0-10-1 season in 1994. Pretty amazing.

There was NO WAY that I would've believed it was possible.

If that doesn't make you feel a LITTLE better about where the Cyclone program is right now, keep in mind that this Iowa State team has only lost one game in 2003. And that was to a team that has won 12 of its last 13 games. Regardless of your feelings about the Hawkeyes, they have a pretty good thing going right now. That loss might have been tough to swallow, but it was hardly an embarrassment.

In fact, the Cyclone defense played very well, in my opinion. Iowa only picked up 10 first downs all day. Considering the fact that ISU was forced to defend such "short fields" with regularity, I felt that the Cyclones did a great job of keeping Iowa out of the end zone on a few of those possessions. Plus, they held Fred Russell to under three yards per carry, which may not happen more than one or two more times all season.

Here's another thought: A HUUUUUGE factor in that game was allowing the Hawks to block a couple of punts. The good news is that's a pretty correctable flaw. In college football, you rarely beat people on special teams simply because you're bigger, stronger and faster than the next team. Usually, it's a matter of preparation, coaching and execution.

Obviously, the Iowa staff detected a weakness on the ISU punt team and exploited it. The bad news last Saturday was that the Cyclones were unable to fix the problem before it happened again, which was absolutely inexcusable. But, at least it CAN be solved. To me, this is a situation that can be (and should be) fixed pretty quickly…either with new personnel or a new scheme.

What about the offensive line? Hopefully, Bob Montgomery can return to the lineup against Northern Illinois and help improve things up front for the Cyclone offense. Montgomery is an All-Big 12 caliber lineman, so his presence would have to be a big boost for Iowa State.

Of course, the schedule is extremely difficult. Nobody can argue against that. But, such is life in the Big 12. It's a tough conference. There aren't many patsies. But, let's say that ISU plays well next Saturday—and beats the Huskies—to improve its record to 3-1. Wouldn't games at Texas Tech, against Colorado, at Kansas and at Missouri look pretty winnable? And wouldn't an upset of Texas be possible?

Yes, a victory over Northern Illinois would certainly make the sun shine a little brighter again. It would definitely wash away some of the pain of losing to the Hawkeyes. Most importantly, it would greatly improve ISU's chances of playing in a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season.

And many Iowa State fans would begin to feel optimistic again, as they would enjoy another peak of the roller-coaster ride.

On the other hand, if ISU loses in DeKalb next Saturday, I fear that many Cyclone fans will feel WORSE than they did during that four-year, 29% stretch in the early 1990s.

Does that make sense? Maybe not. But, it sure looks like the game against Northern Illinois is the biggest contest on ISU's 2003 schedule.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)


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