Monday Musings

After yet another heart-breaking loss to a ranked foe, our publisher wonders if Cyclone fans are missing the big picture in terms of what's actually wrong with ISU football.

Let's get something out of the way right away.

After the injuries suffered during Saturday's 24-16 loss to Northern Illinois, and given the schedule that looms, it's very likely the 2003 Iowa State Cyclones will not make it to a school-record fourth straight bowl game. If you disagree with that statement, chances are you're even more inebriated on the Dan McCarney Kool-Aid than I am.

That's not a gripe, and not an attempt to write this season off before Columbus Day, either. Unfortunately, I think it is reality. Progress, and success as well, this season may have to be defined as something other than just wins and losses.

The Cyclones are improving, and played perhaps their best game of the season against NIU, but that improvement continues to be offset by significant injuries. Before the season, if you had known that Tyson Smith, Anthony Forrest, Bob Montgomery, Hiawatha Rutland, Jordan Carstens, Stevie Hicks, and Tony Yelk wouldn't remain completely healthy or academically eligible, would you have given Dan McCarney a fighting chance to compete in the rugged Big 12?

That's what I thought.

Now, that's not to make excuses. As you establish a football program, you begin to instill in your players expectations for their position, not just them as individuals. In other words, the next man is expected to perform at the same level as the last man out. That sounds all well and good, but the reality is that ISU's program is not at the point yet.

The fact of the matter is that without those top-line players, a rugged schedule just became treacherous. As you read this on the 29th day of September, try to pinpoint any game that the Cyclones will be favored in the rest of the way. In fact, the Cyclones could be a double-digit underdog in every game the rest of the way. It appears this is going to be a rebuilding year and a record of 4-8 or 5-7 is a very real possibility.

For the most part, I think most residents of Cyclone Nation will be ok with that as long as it's a step backward to eventually take a leap forward. There will be some that will gripe and wonder how a coach who just got such a big raise can have a rebuilding season in his ninth year. Most of those people are either latecomers to the Cyclone bandwagon or younger fans that lack perspective about how bad things were before Mac arrived on campus.

However, that doesn't mean I think Cyclone Nation should accept losing. That doesn't mean there aren't areas worthy of scrutiny and perhaps even criticism. After all, ISU has won just three of its last 11 games, and you can't blame all of that on the schedule. Especially since there appears to be a reoccurring theme in most of these losses. There have been games over this dismal span where ISU was physically overmatched (i.e. Oklahoma and Kansas State in 2002 and Iowa this season). But five other times during this current stretch the Cyclones either led at halftime, or in the fourth quarter, and then went on to lose.

That speaks volumes.

It's easy to question conservative play calling (especially in the red zone), some junior college recruiting misfires, a lack of player development along the offensive line, and the lack of turnovers forced by a defense that was fairly highly-touted going into the season. However, maybe we're missing the bigger picture here? Perhaps our continued fixation on these issues is akin to treating a flesh wound with a tourniquet?

Let me suggest another course of action.

Is it possible that ISU's coaching staff is and has been getting the most out the players they have? The effort, with the exception of the Connecticut and Kansas State games last year, is there. These guys play hard and give everything they have. I don't think any among us would question that.

Nonetheless, despite their hard work, something always seems to go wrong for the Cyclones. They mismanage the clock before halftime. They miss a very makeable field goal. Somebody drops an interception. The defense doesn't make the big stop on third down. A receiver drops what would be a touchdown pass. A key player gets hurt.

Somehow, someway the Cyclones always seem to point their cardinal-and-gold revolver at themselves. What's particularly heartbreaking is that these mishaps are often happening to the upperclassmen. They need to make these plays to cover for the inexperience at quarterback and along the offensive line and they're not doing that. Quite simply, the ISU offensive line is not going to turn into a bunch of road-graters overnight, particularly since its best talent is young talent. Austin Flynn has all the ability in the world, but there's a reason coaches like senior quarterbacks.

There's no need to single-out certain guys in this space by name, but when there's a touchdown pass to be caught, you have to catch it. When you get your hands on the ball for a third-down conversion, you have to haul it in. When you get the quarterback in your sights, you have to take him down. When you have a game-changing interception in your grasp, you have the make the play. When you have a field goal of less than 40 yards, you have to make that kick.

You have to consistently do that against the caliber of competition ISU faces. The Cyclones just haven't been making plays, or imposing their will on the opposition. I think the ISU coaches need to almost go back the drawing board and re-teach confidence and how to win all over again.

As a morbidly obese hack, I can't pretend to get inside the minds of the players who put it on the line each Saturday. But as an ISU fan, haven't you found yourself almost wondering each weekend how your Cyclones will manage to blow it this time? If you're thinking that in front of your television set or sitting in the stands, I would imagine the guys wearing the helmets and jockstraps sometimes do the same thing.

Forget pining away for a trip to the 2003 Fort Worth Bowl, because when everyone is healthy the talent on this team is better than that. I'm looking for the Cyclones to accomplish two things in the remaining 10 games of the season.

First, I want to see some playmakers emerge. I know it sounds like a cliché, but you can strategize and analyze until you are paralyzed. Yet if the guys in uniform don't make the plays, it doesn't matter how innovative your coaching staff is. Who's the go-to guy on third-and-long? Who's the lockdown corner? Who's the back you give the ball to when you need three yards? Is there an answer to any of these questions?

I would propose the Cyclones only have one guy who has made big plays in every game this season, and that's linebacker Brandon Brown. Others, like Ellis Hobbs and Jack Whitver, have made big plays at times, but other than Brown and Carstens the Cyclones just don't seem to have guys opposing coaches gameplan around. You can forget forecasting wins and losses until this happens.

Second, I'd like to see the Cyclones beat somebody in the conference they're not supposed to beat. And that doesn't mean "upsetting" Texas Tech or Missouri. I'm talking about Texas, Kansas State, Colorado, or a road game at Nebraska (you can forget #1 Oklahoma this weekend barring divine intervention). Last year ISU did beat Nebraska, but that didn't turn out to be a vintage Big Red squad. A win over the Longhorns and Wildcats could really pay dividends psychologically down the road – 2005 maybe? – when the Cyclones are deeper and more experienced and in a position to challenge for a Big 12 North Division title.

Finally, you fans are going to be tested as well. After a generation of losing, Cyclone Nation hasn't had to deal with losing to Iowa and/or losing seasons since the 1990s. And in today's what have you done for me lately world, that's an eternity.

My Top 25

If I had a vote in the Associated Press, this would've been my top 25 ballot:

1. Oklahoma (4-0)

Last week: 2

This week: idle

Next week: at Iowa State (2-2)

2. Miami, Fla. (4-0)

Last week: 3

This week: idle

Next week: West Virginia (1-3)

3. LSU (5-0)

Last week: 4

This week: beat Mississippi State, 41-6

Next week: idle

4. Ohio State (5-0)

Last week: 5

This week: beat Northwestern, 20-0

Next week: idle

5. Florida State (5-0)

Last week: 6

This week: beat Duke, 56-7

Next week: idle

6. Virginia Tech (4-0)

Last week: 7

This week: beat Connecticut, 47-13

Next week: at Rutgers (3-1)

7. Tennessee (4-0)

Last week: 8

This week: beat South Carolina, 23-20

Next week: at Auburn (2-2)

8. Arkansas (4-0)

Last week: 9

This week: beat Alabama, 34-31

Next week: idle

9. Michigan (4-1)

Last week: 11

This week: beat Indiana, 31-17

Next week: at #22 Iowa (4-1)

10. Georgia (3-1)

Last week: 12

This week: idle

Next week: Alabama (2-3)

11. Nebraska (4-0)

Last week: 13

This week: beat Southern Mississippi, 38-14

Next week: Troy State (3-2)

12. Texas (3-1)

Last week: 15

This week: beat Tulane, 63-18

Next week: #16 Kansas State (4-1)

13. USC (3-1)

Last week: 1

This week: lost to California, 34-31

Next week: at Arizona State (2-2)

14. Northern Illinois (4-0)

Last week: 16

This week: beat Iowa State, 24-16

Next week: Ohio (1-3)

15. Washington State (4-1)

Last week: 20

This week: beat Oregon, 55-16

Next week: Arizona (0-4)

16. Kansas State (4-1)

Last week: 17

This week: idle

Next week: at #12 Texas (3-1)

17. Oregon (4-1)

Last week: 10

This week: lost to Washington State, 55-16

Next week: at Utah (3-1)

18. Minnesota (5-0)

Last week: 18

This week: beat Penn State, 20-14

Next week: Northwestern (2-3)

19. Pittsburgh (3-1)

Last week: 22

This week: beat Texas A&M, 37-26

Next week: Notre Dame (1-3)

20. TCU (4-0)

Last week: 19

This week: beat Arizona, 13-10

Next week: Army (0-4)

21. Michigan State (4-1)

Last week: NR

This week: beat Iowa, 20-10

Next week: Indiana (1-4)

22. Iowa (4-1)

Last week: 13

This week: lost to Michigan State, 20-10

Next week: #9 Michigan (4-1)

23. Bowling Green (3-1)

Last week: 23

This week: idle

Next week: Central Michigan (2-2)

24. Purdue (3-1)

Last week: 24

This week: beat Notre Dame, 23-10

Next week: Illinois (1-4)

25. Washington (3-1)

Last week: NR

This week: beat Stanford, 28-17

Next week: at UCLA (2-2)

Out: #21 Toledo (3-2); #25 Wake Forest (3-2)

Honorable Mention: #26 Louisville (4-0); #27 Florida (3-2); #28 N.C. State (3-2); #29 Air Force (5-0); #30 Oregon State (4-1).

My Heisman Trophy Ballot

Now that we're a full-month into the season, it's time to unveil my weekly top five Heisman Trophy rankings.

  1. Larry Fitzgerald (WR-Pittsburgh)…The hardest player to stop in all of college football.
  2. Phillip Rivers (QB-N.C. State)…Has great numbers, but quarterbacks are judged ultimately by wins.
  3. Chris Perry (RB-Michigan)…Still has great numbers, even after a couple of so-so games, but will get a test against Iowa's defense.
  4. Jason White (QB-Oklahoma)…Being the starting quarterback for the nation's top-rated team certainly has its perks.
  5. Kevin Jones (RB-Virginia Tech)…He's just starting to get hot and could lead Hokies to a special season.

P.S.

Last week I had announced that I would have to go the Mayo Clinic this week with my mother, who is scheduled to have a serious and potentially life-threatening operation to cure a spinal injury.

On Thursday, Mayo decided to postpone my mother's surgery until the first week of November in order to give her more time to get her affairs in order. Nonetheless, I wanted to say thank you to those of you that were kind enough to send over words and prayers of hope and encouragement.

(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday in Central Iowa from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)


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