FB Insider: NIU Pre-Game

Football insider Jack Whitver takes a look at the Cyclones' home battle with Northern Illinois Saturday, and believes that the Cyclones' running game will need to be more consistent than it was a week ago in Iowa City.

CN: Before we move on to what's ahead for Iowa State, how about giving us some final thoughts on the ISU-Iowa game in Iowa City?

Whitver: I was extremely proud of the way the guys fought last weekend. There were a couple of times when it looked like the game was about to get out of hand, but the guys kept on fighting and had a chance to win it at the end. In a game like that, all you can ask is to have a chance to win it, and we did.

The offense obviously needs to play better, especially when it comes to the running game. However, with so many young guys on offense, I thought they handled the situation very well. While they didn't put up a lot of points, not many people do in Iowa City. In a hostile environment, the young players can either get scared, or step up. I think for the most part, they stepped up and made plays when they needed to. Even with the loss, they will take a lot of good things away from the game. I think the game will give them confidence that will last for many games to come.

CN: You know all about preparing for the ‘week after' when it comes to the Iowa State-Iowa rivalry. What different methods has Coach McCarney used this week to make sure the Cyclones are ready to face Northern Illinois?

Whitver: As all of you know, Coach Mac is one of the most optimistic and positive people around. He has probably done a very good job of letting the guys know that. While they had their chances to pull out the victory, it isn't the end of the season that they lost the game. He has not dwelled on the Iowa game much and has probably forced the guys to put it behind them.

I think we all realize now that, even though we might not win the rest of our games, there is not a game on the schedule that isn't winnable. After last weekend's games, it showed that the Big XII North is up for grabs. I guarantee that Coach Mac has made that a point of focus this week. The main thing you want to do is put it behind you and focus on the rest of the season.

CN: Tell us the differences between the team's outlook after an Iowa win, and after an Iowa loss?

Whitver: The main difference is simply with confidence. Obviously the players, coaches, and fans all feel better with a win, but in order to have a good season, everybody must shake it off and move to the next game.

Another way that a win changes the outlook of the team is that we would be 2-0. That is one game closer to being bowl eligible. Being 2-0 makes a bowl game seem a lot closer than being 1-1.

CN: How much easier is it to get this team focused, in light of last season's result in Dekalb? Or could it be harder? Why?

Whitver: I don't think that there is any doubt that it will be easier to focus this year. We knew going into the game last year that they were a very good team. I think there were probably some people that thought we could show up and win. That was obviously not the case. This year, I guarantee nobody will think they can just show up and win. I would expect great focus out of the team this week.

CN: It seems as if last year's team began its downward spiral after the Northern Illinois loss. Just how difficult was it to swallow the outcome of that game?

Whitver: That was a game that was very difficult to take. I felt that we had better athletes, but they just made more plays to win. It is never good to lose a game, but it is even worse if it is to a team with inferior athletes.

I don't think that particular game was the reason for the downward spiral, but it definitely didn't help matters. I don't think anybody cashed in the season, but the schedule didn't get any easier after that game.

CN: And looking ahead to this year's game, how much of a tone setter could this game be in the grand scheme of things?

Whitver: This game is by far the biggest game of the year as far as setting the tone for the rest of the season. This is the last game before the conference season, but even more important, this is a must win if the Cyclones have any bowl aspirations. Yes, that's right, this team has a chance to be a bowl team if they keep improving.

With the Big 12 North being mediocre, and with three winnable games from the South, there is no doubt that the Cyclones have a chance to sneak into a bowl. This is the most favorable schedule Iowa State has had since the Insight.com year. While we are not quite a bowl caliber team yet, with continued improvement, we could get our 6+ wins to be bowl eligible.

The bottom line, however, is the game this weekend will go a long way towards any bowl possibilities. A win this weekend, and we are making steps towards being bowl eligible. With a loss, we can all but write off the bowl dreams.

CN: Granted you played on the offensive side of the ball against them last season, but what different aspects of the Huskies' offense make them hard to defend?

Whitver: I think the thing that makes them hard to defend is that they are two-dimensional. They are good at running the ball, but they also have a good passing game. Anytime you make the defense defend the whole field, from the line of scrimmage to the deep secondary, it makes it harder to defend.

With Josh Haldi being hurt this week, hopefully Iowa State will have a similar game plan to last week. I think it will be important to shut down the run, and make an inexperienced quarterback beat you. I expect Iowa State to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and try to force some turnovers.

CN: In detail, compare NIU's 4-3 attack defense to the units employed at Northern Iowa and Iowa.

Whitver: The biggest difference is that Northern Illinois will attack more than Iowa and UNI. They try to put pressure on you and force you to make mistakes. Last week we saw a defense that plays sound football and sits back in their zones. Northern Illinois will try to get after the Iowa State quarterbacks with more blitzes and make the youngsters beat them.

CN: What are some negatives out of the Iowa game that must be addressed this week in practice?

Whitver: I saw two glaring weaknesses that must be improved if Iowa State is going to have the season they are capable of. First, we must establish a running game. Granted, Iowa has one of the best run defenses in the country, but the Cyclone running game was very weak. Coach Mac preaches "Cyclone Football," which starts with running the football. The offense has to pick it up in the running game if they have any chance at post-season play.

The second important thing that needs to be corrected is the kicking game. It was not good to have to put a true freshman into that situation last week. I honestly like Brian Jansen's attitude and I believe that he can get it done. I have no idea what the situation is with Tony Yelk, but he is obviously hurt. That was as big of a game as you will play at Iowa State, and for him to miss it was very disappointing. I know that if he could have played he would, but that is a game that we could have won with a veteran kicker.

With the style of team we have this year, I could see many games being decided by a field goal. Our offense is not explosive enough to blow people out, but I think our defense will keep us in games. We will need to fix the kicking game if we want to win the close games.

CN: Is it time for the Cyclones to settle on one quarterback? Do you envision this two-quarterback system lasting all season? Why or why not?

Whitver: No. Both quarterbacks have a huge upside, both have a ton of talent, and both of them are too good of athletes to not be on the field. I have been impressed how both of them have played so far this year, and I don't think either one has won the job outright.

I could see this situation going on for quite awhile. I envision one of them eventually playing themselves out of the competition, as opposed to one of them "winning" the job. Going into the game last week, I was not a big fan of the two-quarterback rotation, but after seeing how they used the two of them, I think it could work.

There are two big problems with rotating quarterbacks. First, quarterback is a rhythm position. Sometimes it takes three or four series to get into that rhythm. If they are constantly rotating, it is hard to find that rhythm.

The second problem is that any offense looks to its quarterback to be a leader. If we are constantly rotating quarterbacks, it is hard to look to that position for a leader. I think it could still work, IF somebody else steps up on the offense and becomes the leader, somebody who is in the game every play. I think the best bet would be Luke Vander Sanden, but I would like to see Stevie Hicks step up and be more vocal. He is the one who can make plays and move the ball for the offense, and I think he can lead by example and vocally.

CN: Finally, what are some keys to an ISU victory this Saturday in Ames?

Whitver: I have three keys to victory this weekend. First, I think the defense needs to create turnovers. While they have played very well, they need to force turnovers to put the offense in a position to score more points. I don't think the offense will outscore many teams, so the defense has to create turnovers.

Secondly, I think the defense has to match the intensity they had last week. That was the most intensity I have seen out of an Iowa State defense in five years. It might be tough to come out with that kind of emotion when it is not a rivalry game, but I think Coach Skladany will have them ready to play.

Lastly, the kicking game has got to get better. I believe that Iowa State will have many games this year decided by less than a touchdown, and that is where the kicking game is magnified. I think this game could be one of the games decided by 10 points or less, and Iowa State cannot continue to miss scoring opportunities. The offense is not good enough at this time to miss out on scoring opportunities, so the field goal situation must get better. I think we have the guys to get it done, but they need to execute on Saturday.

I think Iowa State will come away with a victory and gain some momentum heading into the bye week. I think it will be a very good game, similar to last week. However, this time, expect Iowa State to make enough plays to win the game.


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