ISU's Dan McCarney, the longest-tenured head coach in the Big 12, faced an array of questions on team morale, fan morale, and his team's growing slide in conference play in his weekly press conference Monday.
"I don't hide from people, whether we won big or lost big," said McCarney, who remains three victories shy of becoming the school's winningest coach in history. "I still look people in the eye. I try to be a head coach that players, coaches, and fans can be proud of. I know one of the most important ways can be proud of you is by winning games. I'm going to try to make people proud of me in the coming weeks."
But the manner in which the Cyclones have lost their past two games drew much of the attention Monday. The Cyclone defense went from giving a stellar effort against Oklahoma – a game in which offensive mistakes ultimately cost McCarney's team – to drawing the ire of the coach on Monday.
Offensively, ISU improved over its effort against the Cowboys but still hasn't been able to cross what's being called an ‘invisible wall' in the red zone. Bret Meyer and Austin Flynn were again inconsistent in their quarterbacking roles. Fans are beginning to wonder when they'll see light at the end of the tunnel.
"I'm not mad at all with the fans saying we need to be better than that and let's be successful," McCarney said. "No one wants it more than I do. I can assure you of that. I promise you I'm doing all that I can as a head coach to get back to winning again.
"We've lost our last couple of games after some real positives the first three weeks of the season. After our first three games we could all say we had shown some strides over last year, but as you shift to these first two conference games it's hard to find those things. As a head coach I can find some little things, but in the end with the scores, you could wonder if this team is any better than last year. I still believe that we can be and will be, but let's start looking like it and playing like it."
Many followers of the team also wonder if a ‘here we go again' attitude has set in on a team that hasn't won a conference game since edging Missouri 42-35 on Nov. 2, 2002.
Winning a Big 12 game for the first time since the Seneca Wallace era may seem like a daunting task, but McCarney managed to put everything in perspective.
"I worry about the attitude and morale of my staff," he said. "I worry about the attitude and morale of my team. I worry about the attitude and morale of the players that aren't playing on Saturdays. I worry about the guys that had played real well so far in the season and did not play Saturday. I'm concerned about them and address them. That's what a head coach has to do.
"But we haven't lost seven, eight, nine, or 10 games (this season). We've lost three and are still 2-3. We're not where we want to be right now, but did we think we'd be sitting here 5-0 after five games? No. Not with the young guys playing on this team. But we're clearly not accepting what's happened the first two weeks of the conference race. We've got to be better this week, do some things better, and build on some of things from last week."
While the Cyclones won't be building on much from the defensive side of the ball, the offense can take a few positives out of Saturday. Looking at three points of production, it's hard to argue that Barney Cotton's unit gained much confidence.
But McCarney points to the fact that ISU reached the A&M red zone three times, and marched into their opponent's side of the field on several other occasions.
"Offensively, we did a lot of good things," McCarney said. "You look at three points and might think we're just horrible and stink. But you see 85 offensive plays, 23 first downs, zero fumbles, zero penalties, 2-for-2 in short-yardage situations, and in the end we score zero touchdowns.
"But did we do some things better than we did down at Oklahoma State? No question. Our protection was better and I think we picked up the blitz better. We got down there inside the 10-yard line once, at the 10 once, and at the 17. When you're down in those kind of situations, you've just got to find a way to get in the end zone. When you have that much possession time, that many offensive plays, and that many first downs it shouldn't equate to three points."
McCarney said the offense's confidence could have something to do with the shortcomings.
"In order to have success you have to have confidence, and in order to have confidence you've got to have some success," McCarney said. "It's like a dog chasing its tail; you've got to do those things. We thought we did some things in that game. You can imagine the confidence it will give our football team to get back down there and score. We've got to get back down there, make some things happen, get down in the end zone, and give our running backs some opportunities inside the red zone. It will give our offense a great shot of confidence."
For the first time this season, McCarney had more bad things to say about his defense than offense. After an admirable effort in Stillwater against the Cowboys, ISU's defense took a huge step backwards against A&M. The Aggies ran up 419 yards of total offense and scored touchdowns on all five of their trips inside the red zone. John Skladany's unit also failed to force a turnover for the first time since the Northern Iowa game.
It was not the effort McCarney was looking for from what is perceived as the Cyclones' ‘best' side of the ball.
"We weren't focused and had more mental errors in one game than we did in the previous four," ISU's head coach said. "We didn't play with the kind of fire, enthusiasm, emotion, and heart that we had in the first four games. Every defensive coach and players knows it. It's extremely disappointing, but we'll play better in the weeks to come. I know that, because we've done a lot of good things too.
"Saturday our strength was not our strength. We didn't play good defense and didn't tackle well. They came out and threw the ball a lot more in the first half than we thought they probably would have. But they really executed well in their throwing game. We didn't tackle as well, didn't cover as well, and didn't play with the edge that we did in the first month of the season. I believe in my heart that we can be much more competitive in the conference in the weeks to come."
Mac on recruiting rules
ISU's head coach did take some time to weigh in on the current rules on recruiting, and a seemingly more even playing field for all Division I teams. He also had high praise for the job head coaches are doing at other Big 12 institutions.
"I think the rules are as fair as they've ever been," he said. "I think there are fewer violations out there around college football than there's ever been. I know in the Big 12 Conference, I can look head coaches in the eye in our meetings and feel good about who I'm recruited against, and that they're doing it the right way with integrity and character. I know in this conference, I feel real good about it."
McCarney went on to say that one of the biggest changes in recent years is all of the early unofficial visits going on at campuses. An earlier date for accepting national letters-of-intent is also being sought.
"There are a lot of people out there that really want to push for an early signing date," ISU's head coach said. "I'm not for that right now, and I think I've explained why in the past. The thing that's really changed through the years is how many kids are going out unofficially to go look at schools, trying to formulate who they really want to consider.
"That never used to go on at all, and now it goes on all over the place. This past week we had some unofficial visits. I'm not a big proponent of that, but if a young man and his family want to make early evaluations, early trips, early decisions then we're going to do what we need to do. I like to be able to spend more time with them than I was able to do this weekend. When you're coaching a game and trying to prepare a football team, it's tough."
McCarney, of course, cannot comment publicly on unsigned recruits.