Bruns: I think it starts with attitude. From the start of the season, we knew we had a team full of guys that were willing to fight, battle for each other, and try to make plays. The single-biggest thing from a scoring standpoint is obviously the kicking game. That has gotten so much better.
If you look at the way we played from week one to week five, we have gotten better every week, but in my opinion we are making kicks and putting points on the board. That helps so much. If you look at the Iowa game, we missed three field goals that were mostly chip shots.
The other thing that has been very big is Bret Meyer starting to play with more confidence. If that game against Nebraska were two weeks into the season, we probably don't win it. And the reason we don't win it is because we're not as proficient in the passing game at that point in the season. You're always going to struggle running against those guys, as they had some guys that filled up their shirt sleeves pretty well, but what you can do is throw it. Those are the things that I see as the biggest changes.
From last year to this year, the mentality is just completely different. That starts with the offensive coaches' leadership.
Bruns: Hopefully, nobody on that team feels like we've really accomplished anything. We've done some very good things, but I'm not sure the things that we've done are outside of where they thought we could be. I think they've felt like we could do those things, especially with what happened with the Big 12 North teams losing to the South early in the season.
I still don't feel like there is a lot of pressure on this team. Nobody expected them to do anything. They all expected themselves to do something. But look at Kansas State. Who's really got more to lose here? Kansas State started off the season picked high in the Top 25, and the team to beat in the North. Now it comes down to a game where they're playing us on their field with what might end up being their only chance to get back in it. In the meantime, they've got to win against Colorado. It's an interesting matchup.
The off week couldn't have come at a better time. You like going into an off week off of a victory. College football is funny. Winning never felt quite as good as I thought it would, and losing always hurt that much more. That's the thing that is difficult about it. If you win, you can celebrate Saturday night, a little bit Sunday morning, and then it's back to work by mid-day Sunday. You're in the grind all over again. It's nice when you don't have to prepare that next week for an opponent, and you can enjoy what you did some more before you have to start focusing in on the next week's game. You still focus on the fundamental things, but you're not looking at the other team and thinking about what we have to do and what their personnel is. But you still get a good week of work in.
CN: Meyer reportedly started doing more checks at the line of scrimmage against Nebraska. Do you think the coaches are trusting him more with his handle of the offense? Do you see him starting to mature to the point where he can handle more of it?
Bruns: It's probably both. I made the comment to a couple of people after the game – look at the job Todd Fitch has done. Our situation last year and this year are not a whole lot different. You've got a young quarterback out there. We're still inconsistent in the run game, but maybe a little more consistent this year than last. But really, the passing game is still being relied on to set up the run game.
Our quarterback's preparation, and Bret's ability to look at the second and third receiver is the most impressive thing to me. It tells me that he's getting good coaching. They're letting him know what the structure of the defense is, and where the open man is if they blitz.
He's getting more game poise from playing. He knows that he's got more time to work if he goes here or there. The perfect example was the touchdown to Ben Barkema on the north end of the field. He just kept fading back with the pressure coming, knowing that at any point he could still throw the ball away, and all of a sudden something came open. That's maturity. It's a talented young guy learning the system and coming along.
CN: It seems as if Iowa State's rebound has coincided with Luke Vander Sanden's return to the offensive line.
Although getting the injured starter back is not the only reason for a three-game winning streak, doesn't it have to be a factor? How would you grade the play of Vander Sanden and the offensive line as a whole?
Bruns: Without being able to sit down and look at an end zone cut of what's going on and who's doing what on every play, I don't think it's fair for a former offensive lineman to put a grade on anything they're doing. But I will say that having Luke back has been huge.
He has come a long way as a player this year. He's in a leadership role and really had been dealing with so many nagging injuries and major injuries throughout his career that he hadn't played consistently. But he has this year, and has come a long way since the first couple games of the season. It helps to have another quality offensive lineman who can play winning football.
Cale Stubbe is in their fighting and battling all the time. Kory Pence has really stepped up his level of play from the spring and last year. If you look at Seth Zehr and Aaron Brant, both are young guys and it takes time to get the mentality that you're going to be a dominant player that's consistent from play to play. That's the thing that is still coming for those guys. It's tremendous talent athletically, and there is still physical development that needs to take place. I would say the future is bright.
CN: As you've watched this group play throughout the season, what can you say has been a direct result of Barney Cotton's coaching?
Bruns: The biggest thing I saw from the start is mentality. They have bought into what he's bringing to the table from a mentality standpoint. He's a tough guy that demands that from his players. Our level of toughness and get-after-it mentality has improved. You really see that with the older guys.
There are little things all the time, technique-things that develop all the time. Those are the nagging things that are coming along, but it's a slow process. Knowing what to do well enough that you don't have to think about it anymore is really the key to becoming a successful offensive lineman.
Getting to the point where your technique is so good and down pat, that you know where your first and second steps are, where your head goes, and where your hands go. From there it's reacting to what the defense does. It's a very difficult thing for young guys to do. That's a natural evolution that will come along, but they're getting good coaching. We're getting consistently better at the little things.
Bruns: I think it's just been outstanding. I looked at those guys and thought they had the ability to do some of what they're doing now. But I didn't realize they would be as good as they are. (As an assistant coach at West Des Moines Valley) we played against Todd when he was in high school, and we double-covered him most of the time. We were able to make it hard for him to get the ball, but now he's playing at a much higher level and dominating that much more.
So long as all of those guys continue to devote themselves to working out, getting stronger, getting faster, and running their routes, they will be an unbelievable group in a couple years. They're pretty good right now, and imagine what they'll be like in the future.
CN: The tight ends have been utilized more in the passing game this fall. What are some ways Cotton has been able to incorporate them more into the offense?
Bruns: It's tough throwing the ball to a tight end in college football, because most of the time there is a SAM linebacker who is playing them one on one that's a better athlete. But when your running game gets going a little bit, now you can involve the tight end in the passing game. I think that we've done that. We've run the ball consistently at times, and it's allowed the tight ends to get open on some play-action stuff.
Another thing we're doing is in some roll-out schemes, the tight end will start in blocking and then scrape out. It's difficult to get those guys the ball, but the better your run game gets the more you can use them.
Check out CycloneNation.com tomorrow for the second part of Bruns' Q&A, where he analyzes the defense and special teams, while offering up a mini preview of ISU's games against K-State and Missouri.