How could it have come to this? Talk of 9-2 seasons, conference championship games and marquee bowl matchups have faded into frustration for Tiger fans. What appeared to be one of the most promising seasons in school history has degenerated into the most disappointing in recent memory.
Riding a five-game losing skid, the Tigers enter their matchup with Iowa State with only pride on the line. Other than trying to manage a win for the seniors, who will be playing their final collegiate game, little meaning can be found in this game.
On the other sideline, Iowa State will be playing for a trip to the Big 12 Championship game. After Colorado topped Nebraska on Friday, the Cyclones need a win to earn the right to face Oklahoma next weekend. Riding a four-game winning streak, including a comeback win against Kansas State last Saturday, Iowa State has everything to play for.
Who would have imagined that, instead of playing to reach the game themselves, the Tigers would be fighting to send Missouri alum Gary Barnett and the Buffaloes to the championship game?
Advantage: Iowa State
Much like Kansas' last weekend, Iowa State's defensive statistics are not that impressive. But the unit has played well enough to make the Cyclones bowl eligible for the fourth time in five years. The defense is young, particularly on the line, and ranks fourth in the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 329.5 yards per game.
End Jason Berryman, the team's most athletic defender, has yet to play a snap this season after experiencing some legal difficulties during the summer. In his place, Tyson Smith and Shawn Moorehead, a former walk-on, have picked up their production. The two players, splitting time at one end position, have combined for eight sacks, including a team-high five by Smith. Tackles Brent Curvey and Nick Leaders each have more than 40 tackles, solid output by the men in the middle.
Without Berryman, nobody on the line is particularly dominating, but the defense by committee approach has been successful enough. The team is sixth in the conference in both sacks recorded and rushing defense.
The linebacker corps is missing its biggest playmaker after senior Brandon Brown was injured in the Cyclones' win against Nebraska three weeks ago. Brown, the conference defensive player of the week on Oct. 23, is still third on the team in tackles, with 63. Besides scoring the game-winning touchdown against the Huskers, junior Tim Dobbins has been steady if unspectacular in Brown's place. He has 54 tackles and two interceptions, but is not the gamebreaker that Brown is.
The rest of the linebackers, including starters Erik Anderson and Jamarr Buchanan, are quiet contributors. (A quick aside: former Tiger DeMontie Cross, who just had his school tackle record broken by James Kinney last weekend, coaches the Cyclone linebackers.)
The secondary tops the chart in most defensive categories. Strong safety Nik Moser, a converted linebacker, leads the team with 69 tackles. He also has three interceptions, just one behind team-leader cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Hobbs, the team's best cover corner, will likely match up with Missouri's Sean Coffey, an intriguing combination for the 5-foot-9 Hobbs and 6-foot-5 Coffey.
Free safety Steve Paris is second on the team with 65 stops, while the other starting corner, DeAndre Jackson, has just 40 stops and one interception on the season but leads the Cyclones with eight pass breakups. The Cyclones, third in the conference in pass defense allowing 189.3 yards per game, will present the befuddled Tiger passing game with a stiff test.
Iowa State uses a 4-3 look as its base defense.
Amazingly, Iowa State controls its destiny despite having one of the worst offenses in the country. The Cyclones are 11th in the conference, ahead of only lowly Baylor, and 90th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 21.5 points. Even more, the Clones are 99th in the country in total offense, averaging just 319.1 yards. Facing the league's best defense, Iowa State will find it difficult to reach the end zone.
Redshirt freshman Bret Meyer, who has thrown for 1,606 yards and 10 touchdowns, runs the offense. Meyer has grown into the position as the season progressed, leading the Cyclones to three late touchdowns against Kansas State last weekend. Similar to Kansas' Brian Luke, Meyer is a consistent thrower that is not flashy but will burn you if given enough time. He is not much of a threat to run, but has the mobility to move around the pocket when needed.
Tailback Stevie Hicks has emerged as a quality threat, despite an unsteady line in front of him. He had 123 rushing yards against Missouri last season, which was a career high until he managed 156 against the Wildcats last weekend. Hicks only has three touchdowns to go with his 854 rushing yards, but they have come at important times; his score against Kansas State put the Cyclones ahead 30-23. Hicks is not much of a receiving threat; he has nine grabs for 49 yards this season. Jason Scales, a true freshman, sees occasional duty as Hicks' backup. He has one rushing touchdown on the season.
Redshirt freshman Todd Blythe is the Cyclones' big play threat; the split end's 33 catches rank second on the team but his nine touchdowns account for nearly half of the offense's 20 touchdowns. Blythe averages an impressive 22.5 yards per reception and will be one of the best receiving threats the Tigers have faced this season. Flanker Jon Davis leads the Cyclones with 41 receptions but has found the end zone just twice.
The offensive line is the weak link. There is experience on the left side, where two seniors and a junior start, but the consistency has not been there. Center Luke Vander Sanden and tackle Cale Stubbe, are the group's best. Two sophomores, Seth Zehr and Aaron Brant, start on the right side and will likely be the focus of the Missouri pass rush. The line has allowed 30 sacks, more than any team in the conference not based in Waco.
As Missouri, Iowa State uses three wide receivers in its base offense.
Advantage: Iowa State
Tony Yelk, projected to handle both the placekicking and punting duties, has missed the entire season and will not return Saturday. Three true freshmen have kicked in Yelk's place, with Bret Culbertson emerging as the top option. He hit three field goals against Kansas State to improve to 7-of-8 on the year. He has made all 12 of his extra points, a task that escaped Brain Jansen and cost him the job after he converted just 7-of-9 one-pointers and 3-of-9 field goals.
Troy Blankenship is the punter, but he has not fared well this season, averaging 38.8 yards on his 60 punts. He has placed 14 of his punts inside the 20-yard line.
The return game has been a strong point for the Cyclones, who lead the conference with 23.5 yards per kick return. Freshman Tyease Thompson averages 23.8 per return and is the top threat. Terrance Highsmith and Todd Miller share the punt return duties; the Cyclones average 8.3 yards per return to rank seventh in the league.
Advantage: Iowa State
Despite allowing more points than they have scored this season, the Cyclones have the chance to take advantage of the brutal Big 12 North, which Missouri could not manage. Nearly a unanimous selection to finish in the North basement, Iowa State has had a surprising season, to say the least.
The Tigers have an opportunity to ruin another team's year, similar to what Kansas did to them last week. Whether Missouri will play with the kind of fire and intensity needed to pull that off is an entirely different story, but we will finally get a chance to see what kind of pride the Tigers have. A win will mean nothing, but at least it would stop Missouri from entering the offseason on a six-game losing streak.
Conversely, Iowa State has home field advantage, senior day and a shot at the conference championship and a BCS bowl bid on the line. I cannot imagine the Cyclones would let all of that slip away, especially at the hands of this disappointing Missouri squad. Iowa State is the pick.