Finally, after all the speculation, talk radio chatter, and message board discussion, we received some preliminary answers to the nagging questions surrounding the Iowa State football program on the heels of the streak which must not be named.
In fact, the streak is dead. Long live the 2004 Cyclones.
In the 48 hours since Iowa State polished off a 23-0 season-opening rout of Northern Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium, one thing has become readily apparent. This is a new season and a new team. Saturday's opening salvo resembled the Dan McCarney ball we knew and loved, not last fall's abomination. I'm not ready to say you should reserve airfare for a bowl charter come this December quite yet, but regardless of the final record 10 weeks from now this team served notice that it will be fun to watch for four quarters.
The statistics, solid as they were, don't tell the real story. Sure, holding an opponent to 99 yards of total offense – no matter who it is – is impressive. In fact, until ISU waded deep into its talent pool towards the end of the fourth quarter the Panthers had gained just 69 yards of offense on their first 44 plays from scrimmage. To put that in perspective, defending Big 12 champion Kansas State surrendered 259 yards of total offense to I-AA Western Kentucky in its opener. Georgia, ranked 4th in the nation, yielded 294 yards rushing and 24 points to I-AA Georgia Southern.
By the way, Western Kentucky is ranked 14th in the Division I-AA poll, while Georgia Southern is 9th. Northern Iowa is ranked 6th.
It was also nice to see the ground game churn out a 202-yard performance, led by Stevie Hicks' 111 yards rushing on 24 carries. Todd Miller was solid on punt returns while also making some gutsy catches from the slot, and new starters at wide receiver Todd Blythe and Jon Davis each caught touchdown passes.
Yet, I think the big story coming out of the game was the renewed intensity, enthusiasm, and camaraderie; otherwise known as the three pillars of McCarney-era football at Iowa State. The Cyclones played hard, played like they were interested, and played together for the full 40 minutes.
Watching from the sidelines, I could certainly see a tempo that has been missing since the first half of the 2003 Iowa game. But it was also methodical. Not once did you get the impression Northern Iowa was going to score, let alone threaten the final outcome. The Cyclones stuck to their gameplan, regardless of down, distance, and score. They stuck to their substitution patterns and play-calling throughout the afternoon, caring more about what they needed to do to win as opposed to what UNI was up to (which wasn't very much).
That is the mark of a confident team. And that is an impressive characteristic for a team that had been bludgeoned with regularity in 16 of its previous 19 games. Guys were buying into each other and what the coaches were selling.
Already we're ahead of last year's pace.
Beyond the intangibles, it's also obvious this team has talent. Again, watching from field level the Cyclones lined up the most-imposing array of skill position talent that I've seen in my five years of covering McCarney's program. Davis, Blythe, Hicks, and Bret Meyer look like guys that could play anywhere else in the Big 12. A year from now this is going to be a scary offense. There are several guys in cardinal-and-gold capable of making something happen outside the boundaries of the playbook.
There's also a lot of athleticism on defense, as well as a lot of depth. That depth will create season-long competition, which will deflect complacency. Unlike last season, John Skladany has options if guys don't perform consistently.
Finally, there were the special teams, once a challenge to any rational community's obscenity standards. Considering Tony Yelk was injured they performed pretty well. Todd Miller altered field position on punt returns all game long. Troy Blankenship averaged 39-yards per punt. Brian Jansen, a walk-on kicker rushed into action with Yelk hurt, had nice distance and hang time on his kickoffs. He was also 1-for-2 on field goals and only missed one extra point, which was the result of a bad snap. For Iowa State that's a good Saturday.
Already we're ahead of last year's pace.
Let's give a nod of praise to the coaching staff as well. The Cyclones were prepared, despite inexperience at several key positions, including quarterback. Remember last season when twice ISU failed to score at the end of the first half against UNI and Iowa because of poor clock management? On Saturday they worked it all the way down to 10 seconds before punching it in. ISU also showed multiple packages, imagination, and looks on offense, a credit to the work of new coordinator Barney Cotton.
Already we're way ahead of last year's pace.
This team has a high ceiling, which is cause for cautious optimism, although it's quite likely they'll barely scratch the surface of it this season. But man, won't it be fun riding that wave with them?
Looking ahead to the battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy
It's hard to avoid getting too giddy about beating UNI after spending 11 months in a cardinal-and-gold panic room. Therefore, let's temper expectations based on one specific observation.
The offensive line is still a work in progress.
Most of the game, the best ISU could do at the line of scrimmage against the Panthers was a stalemate. It was a consistent struggle to run the ball between the tackles. ISU's quarterbacks also faced steady pressure in the pocket in the first half and were sacked twice.
I wasn't expecting the Cyclones to go from the five blocks of Styrofoam to the five blocks of granite in the span of one game, but I have to admit I was still hoping to see ISU bully a smaller opponent more than they did. Especially when you consider the team ISU faces This week has a pretty salty defense, led by four senior starters on the defensive line. If ISU doesn't do at least slightly better than 3.6 yards per rush against the Hawkeyes, Bret Meyer and Austin Flynn will be running for their lives. Heck, they'll probably be doing that anyway.
However, I do think ISU's defense will give an Iowa offense that has question marks a stiff challenge. The one missing piece to ISU's defense was pressuring the backfield in passing situations. Too bad Jason Berryman had to go and play amateur Central Park mugger—allegedly. His speed off the edge is the missing link from a solid defense to a special one.
To make this a closer game than most Hawkeye fans anticipate, Yelk must return healthy. Three times on Saturday the Cyclones went for a fourth-down conversion within Yelk's field goal range. They'll need Yelk to convert those missed opportunities into points on Saturday to make this a closer-than-expected rivalry game.
I think the Cyclones have the athletes to play with Iowa, and certainly the motivation. However, I also think they're still not quite physical enough up front at the point of attack, and they're playing on the road against a nationally-ranked team that has won 13 straight home games.
I don't anticipate an ISU win, but there's no way Iowa is going to cover that 251/2-point spread the odds makers have established.
Coming this week to Cyclone Nation.com
On Thursday from 9-10 p.m. we'll be joined in a premium chat with the two voices of the Cyclones—John Walters and Eric Heft.
Subscribers are welcome to join us as we breakdown the opening win over UNI and look ahead to the showdown with the Hawkeyes.
Also, thanks to the ingenuity of one of our readers, we're going to start a Cyclone Horse Trailer of the Week here on the website. Each Tuesday, Bill Seals and I will nominate three candidates for you to vote for on the main free board.
My Top 25
If I had a vote in the Associated Press college football poll, this would have been my ballot:
4. Georgia (1-0)…Preseason rank—4…Last week—beat Georgia Southern, 48-24…This week—at South Carolina (1-0)
7. Miami (Fla.)…Preseason rank—7…Last week—idle…This week—#5 Florida State.
11. Florida…Preseason rank—9…Last week—idle…This week—Eastern Michigan (1-0)
14. Iowa (1-0)…Preseason rank—14…Last week—beat Kent State, 39-7…This week—Iowa State
20. Missouri (1-0)…Preseason rank—21…Last week—beat Arkansas State, 52-20…This week—Troy (1-0)
21. Wisconsin (1-0)…Preseason rank—22…Last week—beat Central Florida, 37-6…This week—UNLV (0-1)
22. Memphis (1-0)…Preseason rank—23…Last week—beat Mississippi, 20-13…This week—idle
Dropped out—#17 Notre Dame (0-1)
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)