One Step Closer

<b>AMES, IA --</b> Iowa State continues to do the unthinkable. After starting the season 2-4 overall and 0-3 in conference action, the Cyclones stormed into first place of the North Division with a 34-27 victory over Nebraska Saturday afternoon. It marked their third consecutive victory and put Dan McCarney's team in the driver's seat for a Big 12 North title, something that was unthinkable nearly a month ago.

Thanks to a career game from redshirt freshman quarterback Bret Meyer, ISU still controls its destiny for a berth in the conference title game next month. Meyer spearheaded an offensive breakout by passing for 345 yards and three touchdowns.

"He was amazing, throwing and running," said senior offensive lineman Cale Stubbe. "He made a lot of checks today at the line, and that's amazing for a freshman to do that. I felt like he and the offense really came on. They took the lid off in the end zone and got a few touchdowns. It felt great to get those rewards."

Taking the lid off might be an understatement, however. Starting receivers Todd Blythe and Jon Davis both eclipsed the 100-yard barrier and combined for 12 catches and 291 yards on the day.

Meyer's 77-yard strike to Davis late in the third quarter gave the Cyclones a 34-14 lead, which proved to be just enough in the end. Blythe, meanwhile, did most of his work in the first half, and already had 100-plus yards 15 minutes into the game.

For a quarterback that didn't even win a full-time role until the second month of the season, Meyer continues to take his game to another level.

"He's growing and improving," said ISU head coach Dan McCarney. "He stepped up in front of the team last night. There were a handful of guys that wanted to say a few things. That's the first time Bret has talked in front of the football team all year, and I give him a chance every day at practice. He sounded like a fourth- or fifth-year senior, instead of a redshirt freshman. He backed it up today and was a tremendous leader."

Against a stout Nebraska run defense, ISU's approach was an aerial one from the start. On the initial play of their first drive of the game, Meyer hit Blythe for a 40-yard gain to set up Culbertson's field goal. To open their second drive of the contest, the two hooked up for 51 yards. That would lead to a four-yard touchdown pass from Meyer to Ben Barkema.

"Our offensive coaches gave us a chance to win the game," McCarney said. "We knew that we couldn't go in here and rush for 200 yards against this defense. We had to have some running game, which we did, and keep them off balance a little bit. But we knew that we were going to throw it more than we normally like to. I thought we did a good job executing, and the protection was pretty good most of the time."

Despite the offensive breakout, it took some big plays on defense to put the game on ice. Nebraska mounted a fierce fourth-quarter rally with a pair of scores from tailback Brandon Jackson in an eight-minute span. After an ISU three-and-out that ended in a Troy Blankenship punt at the 2:55 mark, the Huskers had a chance to tie.

But their hopes were dashed almost before the drive began. Quarterback Joe Dailey fired an interception into the hands of linebacker Tim Dobbins, marking his team's first and only offensive turnover of the game. The Cyclone offense took the field, and got a 4th-and-1 conversion from Meyer to run out the clock.

"I knew we weren't playing as ourselves," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "Right before that last drive they tried to make, I got the guys together and said that. It was just like Northern Illinois at the half. We came up with some big third-down stops at the end, and then got that turnover."

ISU's midseason turnaround has coincided with the emergence of placekicker Bret Culbertson. The redshirt freshman hit field goals of 37 and 28 yards, and booted three PATs to remain perfect through three games of action. For the second game in a row, Culbertson got the Cyclones on the board first, hitting the 28-yarder 3:59 into the game.

The kicker from Des Moines Lincoln who didn't even join the team until after fall classes started approached the performance like it was just another game.

"It felt pretty good," he said. "I'm solid right now and hope I can keep it that way. Surprisingly, I feel pretty calm out there. I feel as relaxed as I've ever been. Once you're in the zone, you block everything out and don't hear anything. You just kick it through."

For the Cyclone fans in attendance, it was anything but another game. Their post-game rushing of the field showed that. Success against the Huskers has been hard to come by through the years, and this was ISU's second consecutive win over them in Jack Trice Stadium.

"It goes back to what the team is made of," McCarney said. "There are great kids in this program. We were embarrassed after the A&M loss. They were an outstanding football team, but we knew we could play better. We should have beaten Colorado. This could be our fourth win in a row, but the bottom line is we're improving each week. Even though we made a number of mistakes today against a real motivated Nebraska team, there is no doubt we improved again today. We did some things better."

On the other side of the ball, ISU blocked both Nebraska field goal attempts. Junior defensive lineman Nick Leaders got in on his fourth block of the season.

McCarney had mixed emotions about his team's pending bye week. Playing again next Saturday might seem like a good idea, given the team's momentum. However, some players will need some time off to get healthy.

"You'd like to go out and play next week after today," McCarney said. "But we've also got some guys nicked besides Brandon Brown. Hopefully that will give us an opportunity to get some guys back. I don't know yet on Tyson (Smith). We've got some other guys bruised up, but they'll heal quickly after a win like this."

ISU's head coach reported Brown is likely out for the season with an ankle ligament injury, sustained in the third quarter. Smith sustained an injury early in the week, and did not suit up for the game.

The Cyclones travel to Kansas State in two weeks for their final road game of the regular season. A bye week should produce plenty of hype for the showdown in Manhattan.

"There was a lot of pressure today," McCarney said. "When you're playing for a chance to tie for the Big 12 North. People have said we're soft as a pillow, an underdog, and have no business even being considered. We heard all that stuff and read it. But these kids didn't flinch and they showed up to play today. Hopefully they'll be mature enough and mentally tough enough, because we've got a lot to play for these next two Saturdays."

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