Defense, Special Teams Key Win

<B>AMES, IA --</B> Instead of being the difference in an Iowa State loss – as it was during a few games early in the season – the field-goal kicking game was a big part in a Cyclone victory. Freshman walk-on Bret Culbertson's first two field goals of his career proved to be the difference in a 13-7 win at Jack Trice Stadium.

The Des Moines Lincoln product did not join the program until after fall classes had started. But he's proven to be the special teams weapon the Cyclones had been missing all year. He nailed a 22-yard field goal late in the first quarter to give ISU a 3-0 lead, then hit another in the final minutes of the third quarter for a 13-0 advantage.

One thing is for sure: the days of three place-kickers playing in a game – as was the case at Colorado two weeks ago – appear to be over.

"Bret Culbertson really did a tremendous job for us," said Cyclone head coach Dan McCarney. "He's got the job as our kicker, believe me. It's nice to see somebody stroking a couple field goals. Every time he kicks one, I feel a little better about it. You still want to see him do it. He still hasn't missed a kick, and is doing a great job. There's another walk-on out there that, come the first day of classes, thought he was just going to go down there and kick some balls against our defense to get them ready. Here he is out there helping us win games."

Culbertson's success, given the brisk crosswind at Jack Trice Stadium, also came as a particular surprise. The weather took both offenses out of their gameplans throughout, and even led to a missed Kansas field goal of 45 yards in the opening quarter.

The conditions certainly weren't ideal for a freshman kicker gaining much confidence.

"There was a crosswind moving across the stadium, and it was pretty fluky down on the field," said Culbertson. "The best bet was to just aim it down the middle."

ISU's best bet on the defensive side of the ball is turning out to be defensive lineman Brent Curvey. The sophomore scored for the second consecutive week on a fumble return for touchdown. After taking one back 65 yards in Waco, Curvey returned quarterback Brian Luke's fumble 30 yards Saturday.

Defensive end Shawn Moorehead came through on a blitz to force the fumble, and Curvey gathered it with one hand and dashed into the end zone.

On a somewhat difficult day for the ISU offense and quarterback Bret Meyer, Curvey's return was the lone touchdown of the game.

"He's a tremendous football player and I'm really proud of our defense," McCarney said. "They really stepped it up. (Curvey) took another minute, got out there, and got a touchdown. He's an athletic tough guy that's relentless. It was a great play by our defense, forcing the fumble and scoring again on defense."

The Cyclones' fast start proved to be another factor in a second consecutive Big 12 victory. Kansas had been outscoring opponents 51-5 in opening quarters this season, while ISU's young and inexperienced offense struggled to get going a week ago against Baylor.

But it was the Cyclones that struck first in this game. After a missed 45-yard field goal by Jayhawk kicker Johnny earlier in the quarter, ISU's offense used a blocked punt by Todd Blythe to set the table. Blythe sidestepped a KU blocker to stuff the attempt at the five-yard line. Four plays later, Culbertson hit his first attempt of the game for a 3-0 lead.

"I almost got on my knees and begged them to start fast," McCarney said. "We had to. We talked about it all week, from last Sunday's meeting until we left the locker room today. We have got to get off to a good start, unlike Waco last week. There was no doubt it really helped us win. We knew if we got off to a good start that it would inject confidence in this football team that we could pick up where we left off in Baylor.

"(The blocked punt) was on a return call. But anytime we have a return called we're still going to bring somebody in case of a bad snap. It was an outside-in move, and (Blythe) came free. It was a huge play. It would have been nice if we could have scored a touchdown, which we didn't, but we still came out of it with points and momentum."

Taking a 10-0 lead into the locker room, the Cyclones took a conservative approach throughout much of the final 30 minutes. Meyer threw just three passes in the second half, and turned the controls over to Stevie Hicks.

The sophomore back grinded out 110 yards over 30 carries in the game. But none was more important than a 17-yard run late in the game where he carried numerous defenders.

"We came into this game with the mentality that to win the game we had to be able to run the football," said Hicks. "That's something we haven't been doing very well lately, but we picked it up today."

McCarney preferred a ground-oriented attack in the second half for a number of reasons, including a left ankle injury that hobbled Meyer.

"We knew then that our defense was playing outstanding," ISU's head coach said. "Barney, John Skladany, and I talked about it at halftime. We weren't trying to pull anything in. We knew our defense was playing outstanding, and we wanted to make darn sure that we didn't lose the game by turning it over.

"Bret Meyer also wasn't 100 percent as the game wore on, but he hung in there. We wanted Stevie Hicks and our offensive line to step it up, and I really thought he had some great runs in the fourth quarter. He had 110 yards rushing and none of them were real long runs."

The Cyclone defense more than held up its end of the bargain, forcing four turnovers for the second consecutive week. Ellis Hobbs intercepted a Jason Swanson pass on KU's final drive to ice the victory. Nik Moser picked off a pass in the end zone to sniff out a halfback pass. Steve Paris also intercepted a Jayhawk pass. Then, of course, the Cyclones got the big fumble recovery from Curvey.

"The confidence is back," said the Big 12's defensive player of the week at Baylor, Brandon Brown. "We're executing now, doing the right things, and being in the right spot. We've got to keep it going. We try for at least three turnovers every week. We got four of them last week and four this week. That's helping us win games. It plays a huge part in the overcome."

All of a sudden, the Cyclones find themselves in position to make a run at the top of the Big 12 North standings next weekend in Ames. An ISU victory over first-place Nebraska would move McCarney's team into a tie for the lead. That, for a team that just snapped a 13-game conference losing streak last weekend in Waco.

"I haven't really thought about it yet, but it would be nice to know if we get that win that we'd be on top in the Big 12 North," Hicks said. "We know it's wide open."

The focus for now, however, is making strides week-to-week as the Cyclones have since a 31-point home loss to Texas A&M.

"Right now the focus is we've got to keep improving," McCarney said. "We did that and have done it three weeks in a row now. We improved again today, even though there wasn't an offensive scoring machine out there. We improved as a team and have to do that.

"Our focus is on another team that beat us badly last year and shut us out. You can see this team getting better and believing in themselves. There was a good look in my coaches' eyes and the players' eyes from the beginning of this game to the end."

Next week's game against the Huskers will kick off at 1 p.m. in Jack Trice Stadium.

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