Publisher's Note: This is the third in a 12-part series, projecting the outcome of the upcoming Iowa State football season. These are works of fiction, obviously, and all the information and quotes printed are figments of the writer's fertile imagination. However, they are also meant as analysis and prognostication. The schedule for the rest of the Monday Musings throughout the offseason are as follows:
May 2—Iowa State 38, Illinois State 3
May 9—Iowa State 23, Iowa 21
May 23—at Nebraska
June 6—at Missouri
June 13—Oklahoma State
June 20—at Texas A&M
June 27—Kansas State
July 11—at Kansas
July 25 (pending expected baby arrival)—2005 Preview
Iowa State 26, Army 14
The 22nd-ranked Iowa State football team has relished its return to the national rankings after a three-year absence in the wake of its big win over archrival Iowa nearly two weeks ago. Yet Friday night at West Point against a gritty Army squad the Cyclones certainly didn't play like they wanted their stay in the top 25 to be a long one.
Luckily, the young Black Knights made some mistakes late that allowed the Cyclones – 17-point favorites heading into the game – to escape Michie Stadium with a 26-14 victory.
ISU looked like the not ready for primetime players before a national-television audience on ESPN2, as opposed to a Big 12 upstart that Lee Corso handed the North Division crown to last week on College Gameday. The Cyclones looked sloppy early and were definitely lethargic. Whether it was the 13-day layoff or too much reading of the press clippings or both, Dan McCarney didn't want to hear any more title talk afterwards.
"I told them that if we're going to play like that maybe we shouldn't play any more national TV games," McCarney said. "No doubt about it, Army played hard and you knew the coach over there would get them ready for us. Obviously we didn't do a good enough job of getting our guys ready. We've got some things to firm up before next week."
Next week the Cyclones, 3-0 for the first time since 2001, travel to Lincoln for the Big 12 opener against Nebraska. ISU hasn't defeated the Huskers on the road since 1977, the year we first heard of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. If ISU repeats Friday night's performance, they'll suffer another massacre at Memorial Stadium.
The Cyclones didn't get a first down in the first quarter, and didn't have a third-down conversion until the 11:38 mark of the second quarter. At one point ISU was minus-4 in turnover margin and behind, 14-0, on the scoreboard until Tony Yelk connected on a 44-yard field goal right before halftime.
"I don't know what happened," ISU quarterback Bret Meyer said. "You would've thought we'd be fired up about playing on national TV, but once the game started it took us a while to get it started."
The first drive of the game set the tone early for the Cyclones.
Stevie Hicks got the first carry and gained six yards. On second down, Meyer was stopped for no gain on the option. On third down, Lowell Garthwaite on a safety blitz sacked Meyer. And so it began. Army utilized an aggressive blitz package that had ISU guessing the whole first half. The Cyclones made them pay for it at times by getting some productive quick-hitters from Hicks between the tackles, but struggled again to sustain drives and convert in the red zone.
"Their defense was tenacious, no doubt about it," McCarney said. "We struggled in protection."
On Army's first play from scrimmage they called a trick play. Quarterback Zac Dahman took the flea flicker from Carlton Jones and hit Jacob Murphy for a 48-yard gain to the ISU 26. Three plays later, Jones scampered eight yards into the end zone and the Cyclones surrendered their first rushing touchdown of the season.
"We figured we could catch them off-guard early and had that called as our first play all week," said Army Coach Bobby Ross, who led Georgia Tech to a co-national title in 1990 and the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl in 1994.
The two teams traded punts on their ensuing possessions. Then ISU suffered the first of its four turnovers when Meyer was blindsided by Cameron Craig, causing a fumble that was recovered by Seth Lotts inside ISU territory. Fortunately, the ISU defense stiffened and forced a 41-yard field goal try by Austin Miller that sailed wide right, keeping the score at 7-0 heading into the second quarter.
In the second quarter, Army mounted its most impressive drive of the evening. After a Yelk punt buried the Cadets just inside their own 10-yard line, the Black Knights frustrated the Cyclones with a mixture of short passes and draws to Jones that drove the ball 66 yards on nine plays to the ISU 25. But that's where Army stalled again, and this time Miller's kick hit the left upright from 41 yards out.
"We dodged a big bullet there," McCarney said. "No doubt about it, had they hit those two field goals they would've had even more momentum."
The Cyclones took over and finally earned their initial first down of the game when Meyer hit Walter Nickel for an 11-yard gain on third-and-six. Hicks then carried three straight times for 28 yards to push ISU inside the Army 15 yard-line. However, that drive was killed by turnover number two; a fumble by Jason Scales that was recovered by linebacker Brian Chmura.
Neither team sustained a drive for the next several minutes, but that didn't stop the Cyclones from committing turnover number three. Looking deep over the middle for Todd Blythe, Meyer overthrew his intended target and found Caleb Campbell instead. Campbell returned the interception inside ISU's 20-yard line, setting up a 11-yard scoring pass from Dahman to Jared Ulekowski. After the extra point the Black Nights held a 14-0 lead.
"That was definitely a worst-case scenario," senior captain Nik Moser said. "Thankfully we got something on the scoreboard before halftime so we had something to feel positive about."
Speculation was rampant in the press box that the Cyclones could expect to hear from an ornery McCarney at halftime. But that apparently wasn't the case.
"I didn't get on them too much," McCarney said. "We're still a young team, but a lot of these guys have already played a lot of football at Iowa State. They knew that wasn't Iowa State football out there. We needed to focus more on protecting the football and our execution than we did on a bunch of screaming and yelling."
The clinical approach appeared to work when ISU forced an Army three-and-out to start the second half, followed by the utilization of a punishing ground game that took nearly seven minutes off the clock. Yet on second-and-goal from the Army four-yard line, a botched snap led to turnover number four, a second fumble recovery for Lotts.
"(At that point) I thought they might let down," Ross said. "We gave them a big play instead."
Buried next to its own goal line, Army tried to get too cute and paid the price for it. Instead of playing for field position to punt the football and play defense with an 11-point lead, the Black Knights tried Dahman on a play-action pass on second down attempting to hit another big play. The pass was incomplete, but center Pete Bier was called for holding Nick Leaders in the end zone, an automatic two-point safety for the Cyclones.
"That was the break they needed," said a gruff Ross, who refused to address whether he thought the Big 12 officiating crew made the right call there or not.
ISU took the free kick and drove 62 yards on five plays for its first touchdown of the game, most of it courtesy of Hicks, who gained all but 19 of ISU's yards. The only pass on the drive is what scored the touchdown. Meyer hit Jon Davis on a 13-yard play-action, rollout pass that cut the Army lead to 14-12.
After gaining a couple of first downs on its next possession, the Army offense sputtered and was forced to punt. ISU took over at its own 21-yard line following the fair catch by Ryan Baum.
"In the huddle we knew this was the drive we needed to take back control of the game," center Seth Zehr said.
The Cyclones did exactly that with a punishing ground game to mount a 10-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 6:21 off the clock. Just two of the plays on the drive were passes—one a 9-yard completion to Ben Barkema for a first down, another a 12-yarder to Blythe that converted another third down into a first. Other than that, it was Meyer on the quarterback keeper or Hicks gaining the tough yards between the tackles. It was Hicks who gave the Cyclones their first lead with a three-yard touchdown run at the 12:03 mark of the fourth quarter. After deciding against a two-point conversion try, ISU sent out Bret Culbertson for the extra point and had a 19-14 lead.
"We were getting stronger as the game went on," said Hicks, who gained a season-high 142 yards rushing on 28 carries.
That's when Army began to fall apart.
A few minutes later, Dahman tried to go long for Murphy but underthrew the pass and had it intercepted by DeAndre Jackson. ISU took the ball and drove into field goal looking for an eight-point lead. However, the 38-yard attempt by Culbertson was no good, keeping the margin at just five.
With 5:14 remaining, Army got its final chance to win the game. The Black Knights moved into ISU territory, but Dahman was intercepted for a second time. Under pressure from Shawn Moorehead, Dahman tried to get the ball to Ulekowski over the middle, but Tim Dobbins stepped in front of the pass and picked it off. He returned it to the Army 34 and ISU was back in business.
After a first down running play to Hicks, Meyer caught Army in man-to-man coverage and made them pay for it with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Blythe. After the PAT the Cyclones had a 26-14 lead. The defense made that score hold up, and ISU escaped West Point with a sluggish win.
"This may have not been our best effort but we got the win," Meyer said. "We know we'll need to play better than this next week."
Nebraska will be waiting to extract a measure of revenge for last year's loss in Ames, its second in the last three years to ISU. The Huskers face a tough Pittsburgh team with an explosive offense at home today but are 2-0 and thinking a wide-open North Division title chase is within their grasp.
Iowa State 0-3-9-14=26
Army—Jones 8 run (Miller kick)
Army—Ulekowski 11 pass from Dahman (Miller kick)
Iowa State—Yelk 44 FG
Iowa State—Safety (holding in the end zone)
Iowa State—Davis 13 pass from Meyer (Culbertson kick)
Iowa State—Hicks 3 run (Culbertson kick)
Iowa State—Blythe 32 pass from Meyer (Culbertson kick)
Rushing—Iowa State (189): Hicks 28-142, Meyer 6-24, Scales 3-8, Sumrall 1-15; Army (107): Jones 18-98, Dahman 5-7, Gulsby 1-2. Passing—Iowa State (110): Meyer 9-19-2-110; Army (168): Dahman 15-31-2-168. Receiving—Iowa State: Blythe 3-61, Davis 2-19, Nickel 2-15, Barkema 1-9, Flynn 1-6; Army: Murphy 6-91, Ulekowski 4-41, Anderson 4-29, Jones 1-7. Sacks—Army 3, Iowa State 2. Attendance—33,965.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each week in Iowa from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)