Whew…that was close. Make that too close. And yes, that is a deep sigh of relief you're hearing all the way from the Jacobson Building.
Can you imagine what life would be like this morning all over Cyclone Nation had Iowa State lost to Northern Illinois and went into the bye week at 1-2 as opposed to 2-1? This may sound crazy, but that could very well turn out to be as big a win as Dan McCarney has had in Ames.
True, beating a first-tier team from the Mid-American Conference isn't the same as beating Iowa, Nebraska, or winning a bowl game. But considering what was at stake for a program that hadn't beaten a Division I-A foe in 377 days that was one ISU had to have.
To start out the game with leads of 13-0 and 20-7 and to lose to a Huskies' squad minus its starting quarterback on the road would've set the talk radio shows and message boards ablaze. It also could've sent this young team into a depression.
I've always maintained that it was the loss to this Northern Illinois team a year ago that began the descent into darkness and the record which must not be named. And had ISU succumbed to adversity on Saturday afternoon all of the spontaneous goodwill and optimism built up the first two weeks would've evaporated in an instant, replaced by cynicism and as much scrutiny as Coach McCarney has ever faced during his tenure.
Sometimes teams need to learn how to win. Particularly teams as young as is Iowa State's. They had plenty of excuses not to on Saturday. They were without three key starters. The kicking game was in shambles. They were beat up after a physical brawl with an in-state rival.
And for a while there it looked like the 2002 Connecticut game all over again, didn't it? Especially after Austin Flynn's fourth-down pass flickered off of a wide-open Todd Blythe's fingertips in the end zone. Come on, you can be honest. I couldn't be the only making that comparison, could I?
Somebody needed to make a play.
Enter Ellis Hobbs.
If the Cyclones end up making an improbable turnaround that results in a fourth bowl trip in five years, all of us we'll probably go back to the senior cornerback's blocked punt that resulted in a touchdown as the key play of the season. It was the catalyst that sparked a 28-point ISU rally on Saturday.
It also sent a message to all those young players that watched their upperclassmen teammates fold at times like this a year ago. The message was simply this: forget what you saw last year because at ISU we not always have the best players but we've always got among the toughest. It was that mentality that Mac used to turn this program around, and that mentality will help it rebound.
Make no mistake, that was a gut-check win and the type of victory that may not send the hearts at SportsCenter or CollegeFootballNews.com aflutter but it sends the confidence inside that ISU locker room soaring.
Now ISU has two weeks to get rested and get healthy before they face a football team in its Big 12 opener that is as fast and physical as any it'll play the rest of the season. Oklahoma State has questions at quarterback, but when you run the ball like the Cowboys do it doesn't matter.
Another test awaits and the Cyclones have two weeks to study for it.
The debate within Cyclone Nation over ISU's starting quarterback situation rages on. Most of you think it's time for the coaching staff to settle on one guy, and most of you believe that guy is Austin Flynn.
Last week in this space I defended the rotation under center, and even urged the coaches to maintain it. This week I'm reversing field.
With two weeks to prepare for Oklahoma State, I'd like to see this first week of practice settle the quarterback derby once and for all. Yes the team is 2-1, but as the season wears on and the competition gets tougher, I do agree with many of you that it gets more difficult for either Flynn or Bret Meyer to develop cohesion within the offense. Each has handled the situation beautifully and with maturity, but while it sounds great to play the hot-hand it's just not realistic to expect that to be effective over the long term.
I'm sure the coaches agree with that as well. But they also see what we don't see. Through 15 spring practices and three weeks of fall camp, Meyer clearly out-performed Flynn in their minds. Yet in the spring game and here during the season it's tough to argue that scenario has played itself out on the field.
Sometimes players are just gamers, and I think Flynn is one of those players. However, he also doesn't have the long-term promise of a Meyer, which excites the coaches and me. Nonetheless, Meyer has had three games now to get his feet wet and earn some experience. If he can't solidify his hold on the job by now, then it's time to hand the reins to the other guy who nearly beat Iowa for you and did beat Northern Illinois.
I'd like to see that happen this week so that next week whomever wins the starting job can claim the majority of snaps before heading into the Big 12 season. With the North Division race so wide open, I don't think the Cyclones can afford the luxury of letting Meyer grow into the job week-by-week any longer. There is an opportunity there that was unthinkable a month or so ago. In my opinion Flynn gets you closer to taking advantage of it than Meyer does.
I would still play Meyer a series or two each game to keep his chin up and prepare him for the likelihood of replacing Flynn in case of injury. The fearlessness Flynn plays with, while admirable, is counter-productive to him staying healthy consistently.
Meyer may be the man of tomorrow, but it's becoming clearer and clearer that Flynn deserves the nod for 2004.
Another thing I suggest the Cyclones work on a lot during the bye week is a cache of two-point conversion plays, because it appears they're going to need them.
There aren't enough negative adjectives in the dictionary to describe ISU's ongoing placekicking ordeal. Many of the words that better characterize the current fiasco are unfit for a family website such as this. It's gotten so bad that I'm almost wishing Mike McKnight still had some eligibility left.
So what is the answer?
At this point I'm ready to seek out alleged "faith healer" Benny Hinn to see if he has the miracle cure for Tony Yelk's horrific hip flexor. Better yet, maybe Mr. Miyagi can do that hands-together heat rub thing? Is Pat Morita still around?
Oh, I know. How about the next time a kid at Ankeny – which is a hop, skip, and a jump down I-35 from Cyclone Valhalla – starts kicking 50-yard field goals in high school with regularity maybe ISU should recruit him?
Just a thought.
My Top 25
If I had a vote in the Associated Press college football poll, this would have been my ballot:
2. Oklahoma (3-0)…Last week—2…This week—beat Oregon, 31-7…Next week—idle
6. Fresno State (3-0)…Last week—7…This week—beat Portland State, 27-17…Next week—idle
12. LSU (2-1)…Last week—5…This week—lost to Auburn, 10-9…Next week—Mississippi State (1-2)
13. Florida (1-1)…Last week—10…This week—lost to Tennessee, 30-28…Next week—Kentucky (1-1)
14. Alabama (3-0)…Last week—14…This week—beat Western Carolina, 52-0…Next week—at Arkansas (2-1)
15. Ohio State (3-0)…Last week—24…This week—beat N.C. State, 22-16…Next week—idle
16. Purdue (2-0)…Last week—16…This week—idle…Next week—at Illinois (2-1)
17. California (2-0)…Last week—15…This week—idle…Next week—idle
24. Iowa (2-1)…Last week—13…This week—lost to Arizona State, 44-7…Next week—at #20 Michigan (2-1)
Dropped out—#23 TCU (2-1), #25 Troy (2-1)
(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)