Wed Mar 16 03:42pm EDT
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Cyclones.
• Previously On… Nobody starts out gunning for the title of "Best 5-7 Team in America," but if you happen to be 5-7 — and especially if you happen to be accustomed to being 5-7 — you can do a lot worse than Iowa State in 2010: The Cyclones took out a pair of bowl teams (Northern Illinois and Texas Tech) by double digits, stunned Texas in Austin, came up one crazy fake extra point short of shocking Nebraska in overtime and still had a chance to sneak into a bowl game in the season finale. On the other hand, they were also blown out by rival Iowa, 35-7, and whipped in November by both lame-duck Colorado (34-14) and Missouri (14-0) with the postseason within their grasp, leaving coach Paul Rhoades' second season looking like a sideways step at best on the heels of his solid, 7-6 debut in 2009.
• The Big Change. Quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson weren't just the biggest names on the offense for three years; statistically, they've been virtually the only names worth paying attention to. Between Arnaud's arm and Robinson's legs, the pair accounted for 84 percent of the Cyclones' total offense as sophomores in 2008, nearly 80 percent in 2009 and 77 percent last year. The simultaneous exit of the team's top two receivers leaves the offense totally bereft of proven playmakers, and down an All-Big 12 center, to boot.
That's not to suggest they left a very high bar to clear — the Cyclones were next-to-last in the league in total and scoring offense, after finishing dead last in scoring in 2009 — only that no one's ever seen the new kids jump. If anyone's going to fill Robinson's role as primary playmaker on offense, it's shifty Shontrelle Johnson, a Florida transplant who did most of his damage as a true freshman on kick returns but made the most of his limited chances in the backfield: He went over 100 yards rushing with a 61-yard touchdown in the shootout win over Texas Tech, broke off a 38-yarder against Utah and left half of Kansas' defense icing down its ACLs on the sideline with this 33-yarder:
Still, after shaking up the Jayhawks, Johnson touched the ball a grand total of four times for eight yards over the last three games, hardly the work of an exciting up-and-comer. At best, he'll emerge as another competent role player with the occasional flash of an extra gear, a la Robinson, but the Cyclones lack anything resembling a consistent home-run hitter.
|The Least You Should Know About...|
|5-7 (3-5 Big 12); 4-3 at home, 1-4 on the road.|
|Past Five Years|
|2006-10: 21-40 (9-31 Big 12); Three head coaches.|
|Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*|
|2007-11: N/A (no classes ranked in Rivals top 50)|
|Linebacker Jake Knott was a nothing recruit out of a central Iowa town with a population of barely 5,000 people (Waukee, also the hometown of Joey Jordison, drummer for Des Moines-based freak metal band Slipknot), but made a big name for himself as a sophomore with a team-high 130 tackles, four interceptions, four forced fumbles and a spot on the All-Big 12 team. At least one opposing coach cast his ballot for Knott as the league's Defensive Player of the Year.|
|Best Year Ever|
Iowa State has never finished undefeated, even in the early days when it took on local high schools and so forth, and hasn't won a conference championship since sharing the Missouri Valley crown in 1912. But no ISU outfit in the intervening 100 years has come closer than the 1938 edition, which started the season 7-0 with back-to-back wins at Nebraska and Missouri before stumbling into a tie at Kansas State and a 10-0 loss at undefeated, Orange Bowl-bound Oklahoma to close the year. There were only a couple bowl bids to go around in those days, but the '38 team finished 7-1-1 and cracked the Associated Press poll for the first — and for 34 more years, only — time in school history. Here's a video of Iowa State campus scenes shot in the winter of 1938 — no sign of the football team, but there are men playing unidentifiable musical instruments and literally cranking a car by hand.
|Jantz and Johnson provide some spark for the offense, defense improves against the run, 'Clones pull a pair of road upsets at UConn and Baylor. 6-6, TicketCity Bowl.|
|Revolving door at quarterback, spotty production from the running game, minimal improvement on defense. Winless as underdogs in every Big 12 game. 1-11, new hot seat for Paul Rhoads.|
|* Based on Rivals' national rankings|
• Big Men On Campus. The Cyclones were typically bad against the run (technically, they were bad at everything, with the possible exception of net punting), but at least found a pair of cornfed mainstays in linebackers Jake Trott and A.J. Klein, first-year starters who combined for more total tackles (241) as sophomores than any other combo in the Big 12. Those two aren't going to resurrect the moribund pass rush, but they should lead a charge up the ranking is all-purpose run defense: In general, the front seven rotation was extremely green last fall, and banged up. Pending a couple ongoing legal cases, it will also return almost entirely intact this fall, and frankly can't be much worse.
• Open Casting. The mass exodus on offense might be a bigger concern if the attack was any good in the first place, and if the practice field this spring wasn't littered with candidates vying to pick up the slack under center. At least four would-be successors to Arnaud's mediocre throne are duking it out, and at least two more will show up with the incoming freshman class in the fall.
At the head of the pack for the moment is a) Last year's backup, Jerome Tiller, who's sole claim to fame in two years is a fluky 47-yard touchdown pass that sparked ISU's 9-7 upset at Nebraska in 2009, an otherwise dismal afternoon punctuated by seven Cornhusker turnovers; and b) Splendidly-named juco transfer Steele Jantz, who initially walked on at Hawaii before breaking out last year at the City College of San Francisco, his first full season as a quarterback at any level. They be wary of admitting it, but secretly, ISU fans are hoping they uncovered a late-blooming gem. Who just happens to wear a legitimate fauxhawk.
• Overly optimistic spring narrative. It may be a longshot, but Iowa State is so far behind the curve in Big 12 recruiting that a a guy like Jantz — a sudden riser with good size, respectable wheels and fairly crazy numbers in a situation where even his juco coaches were apparently counting on another guy to beat Jantz out for the job — is about as good a chance as the Cyclones have of finding the offensive star they've so sorely lacked since Seneca Wallace graced the depth chart almost a decade ago. With an above average quarterback, there's always enough competent skill talent to get something done offensively, which the Cyclones clearly have not in coordinator Tom Herman's first two years.
• The Big Question. Does their fate really lie in the hands of an obscure transfer? Well, no; if Jantz was named the starter tomorrow, he'd probably rank ninth or tenth among projected Big 12 quarterbacks, if not at the bottom. But the fact that the great unknown represents the best-case scenario tells you all you need to know about the not-so-great known. Tiller's brief cameos in place of Arnaud have been underwhelming. No one else who's touched the ball in an actual game has shown much more. The defense needs a vast leap forward just to qualify as "middle of the pack," even by Big 12 standards. If there's any hope at all of getting back above .500, it might as well come from an unexpected lightning bolt.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.