I wasn't very confident walking into Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday.
First of all, I'm naturally pessimistic as it is. Second, I really had no prior feel for this game one way or the other, and neither did most of the folks inside Cyclone Nation whose opinions I respect. That scared me, because I really didn't know what to think before the Texas A&M game as well, and we all know how that turned out.
Third, the news from a caller to my show during the week that said he saw Tyson Smith's knee in brace while purchasing tickets in Ames was unfortunately confirmed shortly after I arrived. The senior playmaker was injured, and I thought that all but cancelled out the loss of standout tight end Matt Herian for the Huskers. Finally, I got a late start leaving the house for the game, and was somewhat dismayed when I didn't run into a bunch of pregame traffic. Could it be that Husker Nation was already there in full force?
See, even on a freakishly warm November afternoon, I can always find the cloud within any silver lining.
Then I ran into one of our website's football insiders, former Cyclone guard Bob Montgomery. Bob was confident. No, make that very confident. Although I detected he might have spent some time at a "pre-event" prior to kickoff, he was still clearly of sound mind and body. He didn't seem worried about Smith's injury, even though he clearly sympathized with his former teammate's plight. His confidence was matter-of-fact, not full of hubris, which put me at ease. As if the reassurance of a former All-Big 12 player weren't enough, the unnamed stadium attendant who politely handles the press box elevator duty backed up Montgomery's assertion. He said the Nebraska VIPs attending the game didn't walk in with their usual swagger that morning.
Maybe there was some hope after all.
My spirit really lifted when I watched from the field as the two teams came out of their respective locker rooms. Iowa State looked like it belonged on the same field with the Big Red. Even two years ago – when ISU won going away, 36-14 – there was still a clear winner in the eye test, and it wasn't the victor that afternoon.
Now that the anecdotal evidence had titled in the Cyclones' favor, it was time for kickoff. Watching the first half from the field two things became apparent: the Cyclones had better athletes at the skill positions and Nebraska was completely discombobulated.
The Husker receivers just couldn't get open, which is why quarterback Joe Dailey almost threw about 10 interceptions. In fact, the one touchdown pass he threw in the first half went through about six cardinal-and-gold hands and arms before finding its intended recipient. And that was pretty much the status quo much of the afternoon, except when Nebraska's new pro-style attack out-formationed or out-schemed ISU's defense, or used a trick play.
That story line didn't change until a tired ISU defense almost gave up the ghost late because of fatigue. In fact, if ISU had any semblance of a consistent running game, or capitalized on the plethora of near-turnovers in their grasp, they might have fifty-pointed the so-called Big Red. The Cyclones didn't have a bunch of big plays on defense (i.e. tackles-for-loss, sacks, turnovers, etc.) but Nebraska's lack of athleticism was still exposed.
However, I would imagine that what most has the talk radio shows buzzing down I-80 west was the utter lack of cohesion between the players and coaches on the Big Red sideline. The Huskers called four timeouts in the first half, which isn't that big a deal until you consider you're only allowed three. Several times during the game they were forced to use a timeout because they had the wrong personnel in the game after a dead ball. And you've heard of teams stubbornly sticking with the running game when it's not working, right? Well, Bill Callahan has to be the first coach I've ever seen stick with a passing game when it's not working, despite the fact the running game worked to some extent almost every time they went to it. That questionable gameplan led to a 27-7 hole that was just too big to ultimately dig out of for Nebraska.
Meanwhile, his counterpart on the ISU sideline decided beforehand there was no use beating your head against the wall, not when you've probably got the best freshman wide receiver in the country roaming free throughout the opponent's secondary. Todd Blythe had 188 yards receiving—at halftime. Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton eschewed all caution, and instead called a game reminiscent of the pre-merger AFL. Now we know why he didn't do interviews all week. It wasn't because he didn't want to give his alma mater any bulletin board material about the way he was unceremoniously dumped following a 10-win season. It's because the mad scientist was feverishly busy channeling the spirit of Mouse Davis, or at least Mike Leach.
Yet Air Cotton required a steady hand at quarterback to work. Enter Bret Meyer, who had one of the most prolific passing days in school-history. Someone forgot to tell Meyer that nondescript in-state recruits aren't supposed to play like that against Nebraska in November as a redshirt freshman. Meyer made so many big plays, and still had a few others he just missed that would've really made the game a laugher. Yet Meyer's biggest play came during the week, when he stepped up as a leader and asked Dan McCarney to address the team. That maturity showed itself throughout the game, except on one forced throw right before halftime that led to his lone interception. Make no mistake, there will be more victories like this to savor in the future with that young man at the helm.
Let's not overlook Blythe, either, who is going to have an entire sub-section in the media guide reserved for his exploits if he stays on this pace. When you're as big as he is, and have better-than-average speed, you're always open. When you're even, you're open. When you're double-covered, you're open. When you're not covered, which is a coverage Nebraska tried a few times in an effort to psyche out ISU, you're also open. The diving touchdown catch he made in the corner of the end zone right before halftime belonged on Sundays, which is where he'll be making a living playing football in the not too distant future.
The other big individual hero on Saturday was walk-on kicker Bret Culbertson, who came out of nowhere three weeks ago to stabilize an abomination that once made ISU the laughing stock of junior varsity football. The youngster from Des Moines Lincoln high school symbolizes what has happened to this program the last three weeks. He was a nobody, buried on a depth chart behind players who would just as soon not have their names on the back of their jerseys so as to avoid on-campus harassment.
Then, just when Cyclone Nation was at its collective wits end, Culbertson emerged to become not just a tourniquet but a weapon. He probably played the best all-around game by an ISU kicker since Carl Gomez in 2000. I'll avoid the temptation to not get greedy and wonder aloud where ISU would be right now if he had been discovered on September 11th or October 16th.
A nod here as well to the special teams, often ridiculed and rightfully so. Nonetheless, when they're not shanking 22-yard field goals or having punt returners collide, they're making big plays. ISU dominated this facet of the game on Saturday, blocking two kicks and pressuring another. ISU has blocked seven – count them – seven kicks this season, and coaches Terry Allen and DeMontie Cross deserve as much credit for that as do the players.
Last, but certainly not least, is the defense. Sure, it didn't win the turnover battle, but Brent Curvey can't score every week, can he? Sure, it only accounted for one sack and five tackles-for-losses. Sure, it surrendered 444 yards and 5.7 yards per play. But most of that came late, when the Huskers took advantage of a tired unit pressed into hefty minutes because the offense couldn't muster a running game and grind the clock.
Cephus Johnson, who looks as good as any Cyclone in uniform, finally lived up to his build and played with passion and purpose in place of the injured Smith. Shawn Moorehead and Stevie Paris played inspired football. Ellis Hobbs was, well, Ellis Hobbs.
The final conclusion is this, the Cyclones are better than Nebraska. This wasn't a fluke. ISU looked quicker and more athletic. ISU had more big-play potential. ISU had the better – gasp! – special teams by far. ISU was better prepared to play and more disciplined. The only reason this game was close was because a young ISU team still struggles to impose its will on an opponent and is still learning how to win and put foes away.
Isn't this fun?
Congratulations Coach Mac
Dan McCarney is now the winningest coach in Cyclone football lore, surpassing Clay Stapleton with his 43rd victory on Saturday.
No, that's not a misprint. The winningest coach in ISU football history before McCarney had just 42 wins, and that mark has stood for 37 years! Hopefully, that puts things in perspective for the select few of you naysayers out there.
What McCarney has done at ISU goes far beyond wins and losses. One walk around the athletic campus on a beautiful fall day signifies that. Ultimately, however, a coach's legacy does come down to that.
So, with that said, there have only been seven bowl appearances in ISU's history, and three of them have come under McCarney; and a fourth one is on the way. There's only been one bowl win in ISU history, and McCarney has that. Looking at how many good, young players are on the roster I'm inclined to think the second one isn't too far away. There's only been one Heisman Trophy runner-up in ISU history, and that happened on McCarney's watch. There have only been two teams at ISU to ever finish in the final polls, and McCarney coached the last one.
He hasn't revolutionized intercollegiate football with his Xs and Os acumen, he didn't invent the wishbone or West Coast offense, and he can be stubbornly loyal at times. He may not be Vince Lombardi, but he's the closest thing to it ISU has had. He's also helped turn countless boys into men while setting examples of work ethic, character, and optimism that have few peers.
True, last season was torture, and there is never an excuse for a 13-game conference losing streak. But the future is bright, the present isn't too shabby, and the recent past re-wrote the record books. When it's all said and done his name will be immortalized somewhere in the stadium right alongside Jack Trice.
Now go out and win the Big 12 North.
My Top 25
If I had a vote in the Associated Press college football poll, this would have been my ballot this week:
2. Oklahoma (9-0)…Last week—2…This week—beat Texas A&M, 42-35…Next week—Nebraska (5-4).
7. Georgia (8-1)…Last week—8…This week—beat Kentucky, 62-17…Next week—at #3 Auburn (9-0).
17. Miami, Fla. (6-2)…Last week—11…This week—lost to Clemson, 24-17 (OT)…Next week—at #10 Virginia (7-1).
21. Boston College (6-2)…Last week—NR…This week—beat Rutgers, 21-10…Next week—at #11 West Virginia (8-1).
22. Texas A&M (6-3)…Last week—20…This week—lost to Oklahoma, 42-35…Next week—Texas Tech (6-3).
23. Oklahoma State (6-3)…Last week—17…This week—lost to Texas, 56-35…Next week—Baylor (3-6).
24. Notre Dame (6-3)…Last week—NR…This week—beat Tennessee, 17-13…Next week—Pittsburgh (5-3).
Dropped out: #23 Southern Mississippi (5-2), #25 Purdue (5-4).
Handicapping the Heisman
It's risky going with a rookie, but we think one man is beginning to separate himself from the pack.
1. Adrian Peterson (RB-Oklahoma)…A gutsy, if not prolific, effort led to the freshman's ninth straight 100-yard game. We're going out on a limb and projecting that he will be the man hoisting the award on December 11th.
2. Jason White (QB-Oklahoma)…Threw for five touchdowns and zero interceptions in leading the Sooners to what should be their final major obstacle to an undefeated season. Archie Griffin may be getting nervous.
3. Alex Smith (QB-Utah)…Continues to pile up impressive numbers. He could be a solid dark-horse choice if voters split their votes between the better-known Oklahoma and USC teammates.
Another week of games changes our perspective a little bit on where we think the top teams in the country will spend their postseasons.
Orange (BCS #1 vs. BCS #2)…Oklahoma (12-0) vs. USC (12-0)
Rose (Big Ten #1 vs. Pac-10 #1/BCS)…Michigan (10-1) vs. California (10-1)
Sugar (SEC #1/BCS vs. BCS)…Auburn (11-1) vs. Virginia Tech (9-3)
Fiesta (Big 12#1/BCS vs. BCS)…Texas (10-1) vs. West Virginia (9-2)
Capitol One (Big Ten #2 vs. SEC #2)…Tennessee (9-3) vs. Wisconsin (10-1)
Cotton (Big 12 #2 vs. SEC #3)…Texas A&M (7-4) vs. Georgia (9-2)
Gator (ACC #2 vs. Big East #2)…Miami, Fla. (8-3) vs. Notre Dame (7-4)
Outback (SEC #4 vs. Big Ten #3)…LSU (9-2) vs. Iowa (8-3)
Liberty (C-USA #1 vs. MWC #1)…Louisville (10-1) vs. Utah (10-1)
Music City (Big Ten #6 vs. SEC)…Northwestern (7-5) vs. Florida (6-5)
Peach (ACC #3 vs. SEC #5)…Florida State (8-3) vs. Alabama (7-4)
Sun (Big Ten #5 vs. Pac-10 #3)…Purdue (7-4) vs. UCLA (6-5)
Continental Tire (Big East #4 vs. ACC #4)…Syracuse (6-5) vs. Virginia (8-3)
*Emerald (At-large vs. MWC #3)…BYU (6-5) vs. Bowling Green (8-3)
Holiday (Big 12 #3 vs. Pac-10 #2)…Oklahoma St. (7-4) vs. Arizona St. (9-2)
#Houston (Big 12 vs. At-large)…Nebraska (6-5) vs. Connecticut (7-4)
Alamo (Big Ten #4 vs. Big 12 #4)…Ohio State (6-5) vs. Iowa State (7-5)
*Silicon Valley (WAC #2 vs. At-Large)…UTEP (8-3) vs. North Carolina (6-5)
Independence (Big 12 #5 vs. SEC)…Texas Tech (7-4) vs. South Carolina (6-5)
Insight (Big East #3 vs. Pac-10 #4)…Boston College (8-3) vs. Oregon (6-5)
Motor City (MAC #2 vs. Big Ten #7)…Miami, Oh. (8-4) vs. Minnesota (7-4)
MPC Computers (WAC #1 vs. ACC #6)…Boise State (11-0) vs. Clemson (6-5)
*Las Vegas (MWC #2 vs. At-large)…Wyoming (7-4) vs. Navy (8-3)
GMAC (MAC #1 vs. C-USA #2)…Northern Illinois (10-2) vs. Memphis (8-3)
Tangerine (ACC #5 vs. At-large)…Georgia Tech (6-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-5)
*—No bowl-eligible Pac-10 team
#—No bowl-eligible SEC team
$—No bowl-eligible Big 12 team
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday in Iowa from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)