CN: This question has pretty much been posed each week during the Cyclones' four-game winning streak, but does it become even harder to focus on the task at hand this Saturday given all this team could achieve down the road?
Whitver: Not at all. From talking to the players this week, there seems to be a lot of focus on this team. As I said last week, Coach Mac is very good at keeping the team focused at the task at hand. He will not allow this team to look ahead to anything. With everything the Cyclones have to play for, there will definitely not be a lack of focus on Saturday.
CN: With last weekend's monumental victory in Manhattan, does Iowa State come into this game with a different look in its eye?
Whitver: There is no doubt about it. Anyone who was in Manhattan last week knows how much that meant to the players and the confidence they took away from Kansas State. This team is so young and so talented, but the thing that was missing early in the year was confidence. After the game last week, this team will have confidence.
CN: Have you ever seen a Cyclone team play with so much confidence? What has that added confidence done in the performance category during the past month and a half?
Whitver: I haven't seen an Iowa State team play with this much confidence since the Nebraska game in 2002. After the win at Iowa that year, we played with a ton of confidence until the loss at Oklahoma. This team seems to have that kind of confidence.
In an article earlier this year, I said that most of the guys playing on this team haven't experienced a lot of losing. Guys like Bret Meyer were used to winning when they got here, and expect nothing less. It has been very surprising how fast he has been able to transfer his confidence to the Division I level.
CN: Is this game a role reversal of sorts from last season, given the path of Dan McCarney's team versus Gary Pinkel's?
Whitver: There is no doubt about it. Last year we were on the downward spiral, and it seems Mizzou is on that path this year. I expect this to be a hard fought game, much like last year's contest was for the first half. It is important for the Cyclones to get off to a good start and not let Mizzou get their confidence back. This Missouri team has as much talent as anyone, and could very easily have won the North Division. This will be the Cyclones' biggest test since Texas A&M.
CN: Talk about the differences in Brad Smith's game this season, as he's been more of a passer than runner. How will that effect what the Cyclone defense will look to do against him?
Whitver: I don't think that will change the game plan much. Smith is still a guy who puts fear into defensive coaches and players. Even if he hasn't run the ball as much this year, the defense still has to respect his running ability. The Missouri coaches have probably coached him to not run as much, but that could change in the last game of the season. He has nothing to lose, so I would expect him to get back to his running ways.
CN: Defensively, this is Pinkel's best unit at Missouri. What have the Tigers done so well on this side of the ball?
Whitver: They have done a good job of forcing turnovers this year. Iowa State, on the other hand, has been good at protecting the football. This will be something to look for this weekend, as the team who controls this battle will have a big advantage. The Tigers are very experienced on defense, with nine out of the 11 starters being juniors or seniors. The Tigers have been pointing to this season for a couple of years, and the defense has played pretty well all season.
The Tigers have given up over 150 yards per game on the season, so that is something for Iowa State to think about. However, the Mizzou defense gives up less than 150 through the air, which is pretty good considering the teams they have faced this season. They are experienced in the secondary and those players have done a nice job all season.
CN: Given the fact it has Smith on offense and one of the Big 12's top defenses, how has Mizzou fallen so far?
Whitver: That is a tough question. Missouri is very close to having a great year. They lost a couple of really close games to Texas and Oklahoma State (both of whom would win the North). They also blew a 21-point lead to Kansas State and a 14-point lead to Troy State. It is very taxing on a team to blow that many opportunities, but they are definitely not a bad team. I think the loss at Troy in the beginning of the season really hurt the morale of the team. They started the season with such high expectations, so that must have really been a setback.
CN: The Tigers look to be more susceptible to opposing rush offenses than passing attacks. Given that fact, what type of gameplan do you think Barney Cotton takes into this game?
Whitver: This could be a concern for Coach Cotton. The Cyclones have been rushing the ball better the last few games, but I don't think we have been running enough to make that the majority of the game plan. We will still have to throw the ball in order to score. I think that the Cyclones will keep the same plan that has been working, which is a balanced attack with an emphasis on protecting the ball. This team has been very efficient, but definitely not an explosive offense. Expect the Cyclones to have a safe, ball control offense on Saturday.
CN: Which players on both sides of the ball do you look for big games from against the Tigers this weekend?
Whitver: On offense, Bret Meyer and Stevie Hicks need to have big games. Meyer is playing at a high level with a lot of confidence. You can see him grow up and get better every single week. He is definitely not playing like a freshman. Stevie is also coming on late in the season. I think that is the result of the offensive line playing better, but Stevie is also running well. He is breaking tackles and getting yards after contact. If the Cyclones are going to win Saturday, both of these guys must play well.
On defense, Tim Dobbins and Ellis Hobbs will need to play well. Dobbins will not only have to stop the run, but also shadow Brad Smith. It is important for him to make the play when Smith pulls down the ball and decides to run. That will be a big challenge for Dobbins and the rest of the defense. Ellis will probably be matched up against Sean Coffey quite a bit on Saturday. Coffey is a huge threat in the red-zone, with 10 touchdowns on the season. Ellis will be playing in Jack Trice for the final time this weekend so expect him to leave it all on the field.
CN: Finally, what are some of your keys to an ISU victory over Missouri?
Whitver: The first key to victory is good defense. Missouri has a very talented offense, and Brad Smith is a dangerous quarterback. Regardless of their record, this is a team that can play with anybody. The Cyclone defense must continue to play with emotion and shut down one of the most talented quarterbacks in the conference.
Another key is for the Cyclones to win the turnover battle. Turnover margin is always very important and this game is no different. The Cyclones have done a great job all season, and especially the last 4 games of win the turnover battle. This will be very important again this week.
Lastly, the Cyclones must continue to improve the running game. Coach Cotton has the offensive line playing together and playing tough. The running game is really starting to come along and this is the reason we have scored over 30 points in each of the last two games. We have had a pretty good passing offense this year, and if we can add a good rushing attack, the offense continues to put up points.
Cyclone fans, coaches, players, and alumni have been waiting years for this game. A victory Saturday would push Iowa State to a place nobody could have imagined. Coach Mac continues to do a great job with these young kids. As I write this on Thanksgiving, Cyclone fans should be thankful they have a coach like Coach Mac. Coach Mac is the heart and soul of Iowa State athletics. He has done as much as anybody to put the Cyclone athletics on the map. While the rebuilding process takes time, every school has peaks and valleys. A good coach takes his own personality and builds it into the team. People have tried to run him off, but he keeps fighting back and making the program better. Sounds a lot like his football team.