Ben Bruns was a standout center at Iowa State and a key member of the 2000 senior class that led Iowa State to a 9-3 record and top 25 ranking in both the Coach's and AP polls. Bruns finished 5th in the voting for the Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to the top center in college football, and in high school was named the Class 1-A Player of the Year by the Des Moines Register. The native of Denver, Iowa now provides analysis for the Cyclone Radio Network and Cyclone Nation during the football season.
CN: Let's start with your overall impressions of the Troy State game.
BRUNS: I was impressed with our defense. I think they made plays from start to finish against a team that had a lot of success running the ball, even against Nebraska. Offensively, Seneca Wallace was fabulous and made huge plays all over the field. However, I'm not sure that we've got what it takes to be able to run the ball consistently in the Big 12. At the beginning of the year I never thought I'd be able to say that and still think we have a chance to win the Big 12. But Seneca is so good that he makes others' mistakes go away.
CN: Some fans on our message board are clamoring to see more of Brian Thompson at running back. What do you think of that?
BRUNS: I can't say I blame them because he's an exciting guy that runs the ball very well. He may be the best pure runner we have. But he doesn't completely understand the system. He's not 100 percent at pass protection, which is a big part of our offense. You can't put a guy like Seneca on the chopping block because of a mistake on the blitz pickup or something like that. When you have a Michael Wagner or a Hiawatha Rutland, who are excellent pass protectors, that's a compelling argument to keep playing them.
CN: Do you think the run blocking has improved?
BRUNS: The thing that I see right now is a group of relatively inexperienced guys that kind of take turns making mistakes. It just seems they can't get clicking and find a rhythm. Early in the year against Kansas and Tennessee Tech, you could make a mistake and get away with it. In the Big 12 you can't do that. They need to do a better job of executing.
CN: Did the team show any signs at all of a letdown after the Iowa game or that they were looking ahead to this week's showdown with Nebraska?
BRUNS: I didn't think so. I thought they were charged up and ready to play. I figured they would be because the Iowa win was a good one, but it's not where we want to end up with our program and our season. Those guys obviously know that Iowa win would've done them no good if they lose to Troy State.
CN: Let's move ahead to the big one this Saturday. How much does playing Troy State's run-heavy, option attack prepare the Cyclones for what they'll see from Nebraska?
BRUNS: I was actually surprised that Troy State ran a pretty base offense and a hurry-up. They ran a little bit of the stuff Nebraska runs, but not much of the belly-option or the iso-plays that Nebraska does well.
CN: Stopping the run has been an Achilles Heel of the Iowa State defense thus far. In the two games against Florida State and Iowa, the Cyclones have combined to surrender more than 450 yards rushing. Are they really ready for the physical challenge the Huskers will present?
BRUNS: I think we obviously need to play well on the defensive line. Nebraska is not a one-on-one man blocking team. They try to take you on at angles with down-blocks, cut-blocks, and double-teams. Our defensive line needs to be able to react quickly to what's coming. I think we can run sideline-to-sideline with them, but our linebackers really need to stand in there at the point of attack.
CN: How much are you buying into the "Nebraska is down" talk that seems to be permeating talk shows, message boards, and even ESPN?
BRUNS: If there was any way to get them excited about playing this game this is it. I'm not buying it 100 percent, but I also don't see them as an invincible football team at all. We're going to put as much talent on the field Saturday as Nebraska does. I also think guys like Nick Leaders, Bob Montgomery, and JaMaine Billups, who were former top prospects out of Nebraska, are going to have fantastic games.
CN: By the way, I seem to recall telling you two weeks ago that Penn State would beat Nebraska, didn't I? J
BRUNS: Yeah, you did. I was very surprised by the score. I'll be very interested to see what happens between Iowa and Penn State. That will definitely be THE Big Ten game for them. If you look at that schedule I think calling it mediocre is a compliment.
CN: In three of their last six games, the Nebraska defense has surrendered at least 40 points to Colorado, Miami, and Penn State. Is there a common thread there that Iowa State can exploit?
BRUNS: I think the common thread there is the fact all three of those teams run the ball well. Whether we can exploit that, I don't know. I do think Nebraska is also not as good as they have been in the secondary. They have one standout, but the other three are not the kind of guys they've had traditionally that are All-Big 12 caliber players. Another thing all those teams did was get Nebraska down early. That's important because they can't throw the ball if they don't have the run to set up the pass.
CN: Did you ever envision the day when you would see Iowa State favored against the Huskers and ranked higher in the AP Poll?
BRUNS: Yeah, actually I did otherwise I wouldn't have come here. You play this game to win big games and win championships. Our guys understand now that this is out there for us and that it's high time we strive for that sort of thing because this team has a lot of talent and a lot of character. With Wallace leading the way, it gives us a chance wherever we go.
CN: The average margin of defeat to Nebraska in the Dan McCarney era is 40 points. Last year they manhandled you over in Lincoln. Has there been enough improvement in this program over the past year to really stop having a "men against the boys" matchup like Mac has described it this week?
BRUNS: I don't think that's a fair question and I kind of disagree with Mac's statement. If you look at the game here two years ago none of us felt that way at all. We were in it in the fourth quarter, there was one mistake, and things just sort of snowballed from there. I credit Nebraska's ability to make plays and get after you at crucial times. That crowd at Lincoln makes it terrible to play there. It's tough, and that crowd is ferocious. You have to start fast. So far, we have not demonstrated the ability to do that against a good opponent. I think that's a key for this week. Nebraska will punch you in the jaw right away, and you have to punch them right back.
CN: The Nebraska players have really run a lot of smack this week. One Husker said he didn't respect Seneca Wallace, another said their big receivers would exploit your dwarfish defensive backs, and another player went so far as to guarantee victory and scoff at the notion that Iowa State is even close to the same level as Nebraska. Is that bulletin board material or their attempt to psyche out Iowa State before the game?
BRUNS: Quite honestly it sounds to me like they're trying to convince themselves they can win. They've had two weeks now to sit and think about the thrashing they took to a non-top 10 team. They've been listening to Trev Alberts and old players question them. That eats at you. It's not so bad to listen to one week when you can go back out there and play, but with two weeks off it gives you more time to doubt yourself. I read the article where their center guaranteed victory. He didn't give one compelling reason why other than they're Nebraska. Even some of their own fans are calling them idiots and wondering about the sort of talk that is coming out of there.
CN: How much of this battle is a mental one as opposed to a physical one for Iowa State? Given the recent history in the series, is this one of those "helmet games" Lee Corso is always talking about?
BRUNS: When you play Nebraska in Lincoln it can be because they can explode so quickly. But I don't think that's the case at home. I think it comes down to making plays, executing what you do, and playing harder than the other team just like in every other game. I don't see any reason why everyone's motor won't be running when we touch the field. I'm looking forward to it because I think our team can get after them and stay after them all game long.
CN: The last time Iowa State faced a reputation-making scenario on national TV at home was in 2000 against Texas A&M. That team, which went on to have a great season, wasn't able to rise to the occasion that day. You were on that squad. Do you see any similarities between the two circumstances with the fans wanting that win over a "big-name opponent" and do you have any advice for these Cyclones and the pressure they're facing this week to end that 30-game losing streak to ranked opponents?
BRUNS: I see a tremendous difference. Going into that A&M game we knew we had to throw the football because they make it very hard for you to run. Our quarterback didn't respond well to the knowledge that the game was on him. In this case you have a guy like Wallace who wouldn't let that faze him. That's a huge difference. Nebraska likes to stop the run with their safeties too. You have to be able to punish them with the pass and I think now we have the ability to do that with Seneca.
CN: Why do you think the coaching staff went with the decision to start freshman Nick Leaders at defensive tackle over Tim TeBrink?
BRUNS: Leaders plays with more confidence than Tim does. While he may not have all the size and physical development Tim has had he's got the heart of a lion and the motor of a gazelle. The look in his eye never changes. He's never too high and never too low. Imagine now that he takes it to the next level playing against someone he doesn't care for at all in Nebraska. I think he's going to have a big day.
CN: Any chance the Cyclones are distracted this week with all the ESPN TV cameras following Wallace around and the national media coming to town for the game?
BRUNS: I would certainly think not. It is a different atmosphere and you sense how big the game is. It's bigger than it is around the Iowa game. You feel it because you know if you win this game you win way more national respect than you ever do beating Iowa again. That's a pretty big carrot dangling out there for these guys.
CN: What does it mean for you as a former player to see the program getting this kind of national exposure?
BRUNS: It's huge. Each game that they win this year all of us old guys that got it going feel as if our legacy is building. Going from nothing to where we got the program was so hard that we feel we laid the foundation for every step forward these guys take. It's great to be a part of that family.
CN: What do you say to the Cyclone fans that told the Des Moines Register this week they expect a victory over Nebraska?
BRUNS: I say that's good. Quite honestly I do too. As I look at it this is a game that we need to win and we need to believe that we should win this game. And I do.
CN: How important is this game to the program? Is it, as I have described it, a watershed moment?
BRUNS: Definitely. A game like this is the sort of game that can send your season off to the same level a Florida State win could have. Think about the amount of confidence you'd have going into play Texas, Oklahoma, or Kansas State? It's an important thing and another step on that road. If they don't win there will be a lot of people, like me, in the football family disappointed. We need to get this win because everything we want this season is sitting out there and ready to be taken. Now we just have to reach out there and grab it.
CN: In your mind, what must Iowa State do to win this game?
BRUNS: We need to start fast. We need to play great defense and get them into three-and-outs. Our crowd needs to be an advantage and do the same thing to them that they do to us when we go over there. I'm out there with my wife with our season tickets screaming my guts out and that's one of things that fans can do to make a difference. We need them to step up and make this our house.