Football Insider: Baylor Pre-Game

Football insider Jack Whitver takes a look at the Cyclones' Big 12 road battle with Baylor Saturday afternoon in Waco, which will put a wrap on the South Division portion of the schedule. He believes the running game will play a role to solving the woes in the red zone, as well as the conference losing streak.

Iowa State from 1999-2003. The former walk-on wide receiver from Grinnell was twice named an academic All-American, a three-time ISU scholar-athlete award winner, and earned his undergraduate degree from ISU in just three years. Whitver finished his career eighth on ISU's all-time receptions list and 10th all-time in receiving yardage. He now provides exclusive analysis each week here at CycloneNation.com.

CN: What do you think the mindset of this team is, given the current 13-game Big 12 losing streak, going into Waco on Saturday?

Whitver: I think the team is definitely frustrated with the losses so far this season, especially last week's loss. That was a game they easily could have won, and it is always hard to lose those types of games. I don't think the 13-game losing streak is too big of a factor, because a lot of the guys that are playing now didn't have much to do with those losses. Guys like Todd Blythe, Jon Davis, Bret Meyer, Jason Scales, and Terrance Highsmith didn't have a whole lot too do with those games.

Therefore, the team might not look too far into the past, but they are probably worried more about this week. One thing Coach Mac has always been good at is getting the team focused on the game at hand, regardless of the situation. He always finds a reason to be motivated and a reason to play the game with everything you've got.

CN: On the other hand, what would a victory against Baylor do for this team's morale and goals for the end of the season?  

Whitver: I think a win this week would be huge. If you look at the rest of the schedule, the toughest games are behind us. Obviously, the game at Kansas State will be tough, but the rest of them are winnable games in my mind. Not that they can or will win them all, but I know the guys are looking at them with a very optimistic view. Therefore, a win this week would be something to build on as we enter the last few weeks of the season. I don't think it is too late to salvage a decent season, but a loss this week would hurt bad.

CN: Give us your scouting report of Baylor's offense. What do you look for from this unit?

Whitver: The Baylor offense has really struggled this year. They have had a problem putting points on the board, and a lot of the points they have scored have come in the fourth quarter (when they are losing badly). The Bears have really had a problem turning the ball over. They have a minus-12 turnover margin, which is very poor. They have obviously had a very tough time hanging onto the football. I think Baylor will struggle to run the ball against the Cyclones defense, so look for them to try to establish their passing game. I don't see many superstars on the Bears' offense, and I fully expect the Cyclone defense to shut down the them down.  

CN: How about a scouting report on the Bear defense, and what you would expect from it?

Whitver: The Bear defense has really struggled against the run this year, giving up over 200 yards per game. While they have been decent against the pass (less than 200 yards per game), this has a lot to do with the rush defense. Generally speaking, if a team can run the ball, they will stick with the run game and throw a lot less. This has been the case with Baylor. Teams simply have not had to throw the ball much to win the games. This is a perfect defense for the Cyclones to face this week to try to get the running game back on track. If we do not get the running game going this week, it could be a long final month of the season.  

CN: Another 100-yard day out of Stevie Hicks would go a long ways toward taking pressure off of quarterback Bret Meyer. What will the Cyclones need to do in order for him to find success?  

Whitver: I think the main thing to do this week is simply stick with the running game and give it a chance to work. If you abandon the running game too early, it could be a problem. I fully expect Coach Cotton to give the running game a long time to get rolling, even if it means a few three-and-outs early in the game. This is definitely a defense that you can run on, and we have the running backs and offensive line to make it work. It will just take some persistence.

CN: Coach McCarney said that the coaches have tried a lot of things hoping to get the red-zone offense in order. What certain approach would you like to see the offense take, schematically?

Whitver: The problem in the red-zone is that the field gets shrunk down and the defense has a lot less ground to cover. This takes away a lot of your offensive plays because a lot of the passing plays that require proper spacing simply cannot be run in the red-zone. Therefore, you must have a few different options when you are inside the 20.

First, like I said last week, it helps to be able to run the ball. Hopefully we can get that going this week. Second, I would expect Coach Cotton to give Todd Blythe the chance to catch a jump ball. That has obviously worked well this year, and it is always nice to have a 6-foot-5 receiver in the jump ball situation. Third, it helps to run more crossing routes in the red-zone. Because the defense has less field to cover, they will play more man to man defense. The best way to beat man-to-man coverage is with crossing routs. The receivers can use each other to pick the defensive backs as they run across the field. The last thing is to throw more passes in a three-step drop. These are short, high percentage passes that work well in the red-zone.  

CN: Much of the Cyclones' struggles in this area appear to be mental, however. Describe the mentality an offense, and an individual in that offense, need to have in order to be successful?

Whitver: That could very well be the case. I have faith in the coaches enough to know that they are doing everything they can to put the guys in a position to score in the red-zone. The biggest thing is that the offense cannot be willing to settle for a field goal, especially with the problems we have had this year. Each individual player must take it upon themselves to make a play when they get that close to the end-zone.  

CN: Why in particular did ISU go 0-for-5 in red-zone trips against Colorado last weekend? Was there anything in particular you noticed Colorado do, or the Cyclones not do?

Whitver: I still believe, however, that the key lies in the running game, and not as much in the mentality. When you get in the red-zone, most teams will put another guy in the box to stop the run (they can do this because they play the man-to-man behind them). We have trouble running the ball against a normal defense, not to mention the fact that they put an extra guy in the box.  

CN: We were interested to get your read on McCarney's decision this week to start Terrance Highsmith over Todd Miller at punt returner. What did you think?

Whitver: That was a very surprising move. Todd has been a mainstay in the return game since the Independence Bowl. I do not think it has to do with the fumbled punt that Todd had last week. That is the only muffed punt I can remember Todd having in over 3 years. I think the real reason is that they are looking for a spark back there. Terrence had two nice returns last week, and I think that the coaches are hoping to get a few more longer returns.

I think they realized that the special teams have to do more to score and/or set the offense up in better field position. I find it hard to believe that they would demote Todd because he fumbled one punt. I totally agree that in order to win some games down the stretch the special teams need to produce points. Whether that is Todd or Terrence, I don't know. Apparently the coaches think Terrence can give the special teams a spark.

CN: What kind of approach to the kicking game do you expect the coaches to have this week, since Tony Yelk will likely miss his seventh game of the season?

Whitver: Honestly, I have no clue. It is not a good situation to go 0-for-5 in the red-zone, and it is even worse when you can't trust your kickers to kick short field goals that high school teams can make. The freshmen kickers have been put into a terrible position, and I can tell you that it is not as easy as the fans make it out to be. However, as a Division I team, you have to be able to make 22- and 23-yard field goals. There is no doubt that the kickers were the difference in the game last week, with them making two over 50 yards and the ones we have missing two under 30. That makes the loss very tough to take.

CN: Finally, what are some of your keys to victory against the Bears?

Whitver: The first key to victory is to start fast. The Cyclones' confidence is probably pretty thin, and we can't afford to struggle early. If we can get off to a good start, I think that will go a long ways towards winning our first Big 12 game since 2002.

The second key is to establish the running game. If we do not get the running game going this week, you can pretty much write it off for the rest of the season. We have the players to get it going, and I think it will be one of Coach Cotton's priorities this week. After showing signs of life last week, hopefully we can really get it rolling this week.

Lastly, play with emotion on defense. It is extremely important for the defense to keep their head up and keep playing with emotion. I know they are extremely frustrated. They have played very well in every game except the Texas A&M one, and don't have a victory to show for it. They have to keep playing hard and continue to support the offense. It is easy for the team to get divided in tough times, but I think Coach Skladany will keep them motivated.

This is definitely a huge game for the rest of the season. A win could propel you to a great second half of the season, while a loss could send you into a downward spiral. We cannot afford to lose this game and expect to finish the season on a strong note. I am still optimistic about the rest of the season. Besides A&M, the defense has played well enough to win every game. If the offense can pick it up over the last month, I can definitely see victories in our future. However, this week will play a huge role in determining how we finish the season.

CycloneNation.com Insider Jack Whitver is currently a partner in Acceleration Iowa. Feel free to visit his website at Acceleration Iowa


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