Richardson, a freshman quarterback who had seen only light duty this season prior to a breakout game against Kansas, completed 23 of 27 passes for 250 yards and four scores in the Cyclones (6-5, 2-5 Big 12) 51-23 win. The victory assured ISU of a third bowl game in four years under head coach Paul Rhoads, whose pairing back of the play selection and schematic complexity is largely credited for the win.
"We wanted to have a package we could efficiently run," Rhoads said. "It was simplified going into the game. Once we got clicking and were able to run it, we were able to stay with the simplified version. I think (offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham) called his best game. And that's more than just play selection. It's the tempo he ran it with, when he went fast, when he checked at the line of scrimmage, when he went with the double-move. I thought he called his best game of the season."
Iowa State, which had lost four of five before the Kansas victory, has played effectively enough to win against both Kansas State (27-21) and Texas Tech (24-13), and it's more basic style has allowed the players to focus on execution without having to overthink plays. It's a more free-flowing style, and one which should serve ISU well against a still-reeling West Virginia defense. The Mountaineers have already given up the most points in school history, and are threatening to become the worst all-time statistical pass defense in yardage allowed per game (364.4) in the NCAA statistical archive dating to 1999. No other team in that 13-year period has allowed more than 320 yards.
"If we get a guy to throw 23 out of 27 each game, I think we can get to the next level in a hurry," Rhoads said. "Sam was very composed. He stepped in under the fire on the road in a game we had to have and played with the composure and poise of an upperclassman. He has bided his time, studied and prepared. It's a case of a guy that was ready when he was handed the keys. … I think we have come a long ways. I inherited a football program with the longest road losing streak in the country. Now we are qualified for a third bowl in four years and have a chance to eclipse the three-victory mark in the league and seven-victory mark for the season.
"Our guys are excited about that challenge. We know it's a huge challenge but they are excited about it. We were focused, yet loose, and that's ideal. You gotta have great preparation. I thought on Thursday, we started to relax a little bit for no other reason than it was later in the week. Eighteen-, 19-, 20-year old kids will tend to do that. We had to bring them back into line, so to speak, and regain that focus. We had to encourage them that they could work hard, focus and still enjoy yourself. And they did. They were loose and having fun and at the same time very focused on what their responsibilities were. I don't sense anything different from our team. We view every game as a must-win. We do this 365 days a year."
What Iowa State doesn't often do is face a player like West Virginia's Tavon Austin. The WVU receiver-turned-multi-position talent set a school record in rushing yards last week in the Mountaineers' 50-49 loss to then-No. 12 Oklahoma and was just six yards shy of the all-time NCAA record for multi-purpose yards in a game. Rhoads has schemed to ultra-talented players and offense before – he was Pitt's defensive coordinator during the 2007 Backyard Brawl, when the Panthers upset WVU 13-9 and held Pat White, Steve Slaton, Noel Devine and others to less than 200 yards.
But a combination of the shorter week, not having nearly as much film on Austin at the running back slot as Rhoads did of White at quarterback and all his tendencies, and the idea that current West Virginia (5-5, 2-5) head coach Dana Holgorsen isn't as likely to stay with plays that are not working as Rich Rodriguez did makes Rhodes' job considerably tougher this time.
"It's a pain in the rear end, especially with a six-day work week," Rhodes said of prepping for a new look with a very skilled athlete. "Seven days, it's hard enough to prepare for the offenses you see in this league. Then when they start doing things different and you've got the unknown, you don't want to chase ghosts, but to a certain point you have to when a player is as talented as he is. You don't do that against the University of Oklahoma and their personnel. You just don't do that. He's a very, very special player and now you've got to spend the time to make sure you're ready for it, you're aligned for it and you give your kids at least a chance to try and tackle him."
Rhoads was asked how he found out about Austin's performance, and the Iowa native showcased some of his Midwestern humor.
"We found out at the end of our game when we started to look at the score first, then the stats and all that and tried to figure it out," Rhodes said. "Then we got back and put the tape on and all that, and saw where he was lining up and how he was gaining all those yards. And, soon after that, we vomited."