Man, I hate moral victories.
And to Iowa State's credit, nobody in its locker room afterwards is taking solace from Saturday's narrow loss in Iowa City. It reminds me of the 2002 opener, when Iowa State was a similar underdog to a nationally-ranked foe. That night, after the Cyclones took Florida State to the final play, I watched as Dan McCarney ordered his assistant coaches to get the players off the field so they wouldn't feel affirmation from a fanbase just glad they took the vaunted Seminoles down to the wire at Arrowhead Stadium.
That attitude, coupled with confidence gleamed from that effort, eventually vaulted Iowa State to a 6-1 start and a top 10 poll rating.
Let's hope a 17-10 loss to an arch-rival that has finished #8 nationally the past two years has a similar impact in 2004. There was a lot to like about ISU's effort, if not necessarily its execution.
Against a nationally-rated opponent riding a 13-game home winning streak the Iowa State defense proved that it's legitimate. The Cyclones may lack the starpower of their Iowa counterparts, but they certainly matched them in physicality and intensity all afternoon long. If they can stay relatively injury free (and who wasn't scared to death when Ellis Hobbs limped off the field?) this could easily be John Skladany's best unit. And it's only going to get better as players like Tim Dobbins, LaMarcus Hicks, Jerry Gair, and Bobby Chalk gain experience.
To be sure, Iowa's offense is young and its offensive line is still in development. However, with the possible exception of the Big 12 opener at Oklahoma State, ISU's remaining schedule doesn't seem to feature an opponent at this point capable of lining up and blowing them off the ball in the running game.
Offensively, the Cyclones didn't blink against what I think is the best defense they're likely to face this season, except for a possible bowl game (yes, I did say the "b" word—more on that later). It wasn't always pretty and the execution was hardly consistent. They barely broke even on the running game with just 66 yards. Yet where was All-American defensive end Matt Roth all afternoon? Where was the myriad of turnovers from a wet-behind-the-ears offense shuffling quarterbacks back and forth? Despite numerous setbacks, ISU just kept battling and even had its fate in its hands on its final possession.
That leads me to another "b" word. From the start of spring practice I've been saying one of the biggest challenges for McCarney and staff would be re-instilling that familiar fighting spirit which evaporated in 2003. A young team would need to develop leadership and camaradarie from almost ground zero. We were curious how the Cyclones would respond to their first taste of adversity.
Well, in its first road game of the season against the #16 team in the nation, ISU watched Iowa's offense glide down the field with relative ease for a touchdown. Just like that the Cyclones are down 7-0 before the first television timeout. How would they respond?
They battled. All afternoon they battled. Right down to the final possession, regardless of down, distance, and score. If nothing else, that's got to be the most encouraging aspect of the game. The young Cyclones learned a lesson in this game. If they can hang around with a chance to win in Iowa City by playing tough and playing together, then they can handle any team they'll play this season utilizing the same formula.
The talent is there. Todd Blythe is already real good. How good will he be six weeks from now? How much better will the offensive line be six weeks from now? How much better will Bret Meyer be six weeks from now? I'm an unabashed Austin Flynn fan, but if I were the ISU coaches I wouldn't change a thing about the quarterback rotation. It's working because so far Meyer and Flynn are mature enough to handle it, and have a good, personal relationship. As long as that keeps flowing, play the hot hand until one of them really emerges.
With its youth and athleticism this team has a high ceiling. And for once, isn't it nice to look at ISU's conference schedule and not see a bunch of games that you know ISU has relatively little chance to win? With each passing day the Big 12 North Division looks more and more in disarray. The other "b" word – bowl game – is now a realistic expectation barring a rash of injuries. This does have the potential look of a real bounce-back season.
Potential, the dirtiest word in sports. Potential says the Cyclones could beat a mercurial Northern Illinois squad by two touchdowns on Saturday. But potential also says ISU could come in beat up physically and unfocused mentally and lose at home to an underrated foe who knows it can defeat a Big 12 team from Ames.
That's where coaching comes in. Mac and staff have their work cut out for them because it's likely these guys are going to be congratulated on campus this week for coming close. Instead, the players should be looking at the results from around the conference and realize an opportunity to do something that seemed unthinkable back in July is at their fingertips. Nobody in American predicted ISU would spend the holidays anywhere but at home. Now they've got a chance to go to Orlando, Fort Worth, or Houston.
Forget about class distinction because age is nothing but a number. Now the magic number is five, the number of additional wins ISU needs for bowl-eligibility.
The quest begins at 11:30 a.m. at Jack Trice Stadium.
Don't blame it on Brian
It's tempting to look at ISU's three missed field goals on Saturday in Iowa City, od the math, and wonder what might have been?
But let's be realistic, that wasn't going to happen with a walk-on kicker wearing a Division I-A college uniform for just the second time in his life. One has to feel some empathy for Brian Jansen, thrust into duty because somehow Tony Yelk has managed to get hurt two years in a row. How in Hades does a kicker get hurt two years in a row?
Then again, losing Yelk isn't exactly like losing Nick Lowery or Morten Andersen in their primes. He's been maddeningly inconsistent at place kicking over the course of his career, and if you think he would've made every kick that Jansen missed then I've got some land for a racetrack in Newton to sell you.
Settling for field goals instead of touchdowns was a problem for ISU in big games long before Jansen's three misses. The answer isn't better kicking as much as it's better execution on offense.
My Top 25
If I had a vote in the Associated Press college football poll, this would have been my ballot:
11. Tennessee (1-0)…Last week—13…This week—idle…Next week—#10 Florida (1-0)
12. Florida State (0-1)…Last week—5…This week—lost to Miami (Fla.), 16-10 (OT)…Next week—Alabama-Birmingham (1-0)
13. Iowa (2-0)…Last week—14…This week—beat Iowa State, 17-10…Next week—at Arizona State (2-0)
14. Alabama (2-0)…Last week—15…This week—beat Mississippi, 28-7…Next week—Western Carolina (1-1)
17. Auburn (2-0)…Last week—18…This week—beat Mississippi State, 43-14…Next week—#5 LSU (2-0)
20. Michigan (1-1)…Last week—8…This week—lost to Notre Dame, 28-20…Next week—San Diego State (1-0)
22. Memphis (2-0)…Last week—22…This week—beat UT-Chattanooga, 52-21…Next week—idle
24. Ohio State (2-0)…Last week—24…Last week—beat Marshall, 24-21…Next week—at N.C. State (1-0)
Dropped out—#12 Nebraska (1-1), #20 Missouri (1-1)
(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)