Following a Cyclone football game, your emotions usually fall somewhere in the neighborhood of either disappointed/frustrated or happy/hopeful. As I walked out of the stadium on Saturday, I found that I was feeling all of those things, albeit at varying levels of intensity. That’s because the Nebraska game was about more than just a single Saturday afternoon or the 2010 season. It was also about where Paul Rhoads is taking this program and how he is taking it there. When viewed from that perspective, my emotions swung to the positive end of the spectrum.
Don’t get me wrong, it stings knowing that Iowa State just missed on an opportunity to upset a top-10 team, especially since that may have been Iowa State’s last crack at Nebraska. And the loss will sting even more if Iowa State doesn’t regroup this week and find a way to secure bowl eligibility in Boulder on Saturday. But when the slate is wiped clean in a couple of months and the offseason begins again, the Nebraska game will be viewed as another Saturday under Paul Rhoads when the Iowa State football program grew up a little bit- something that has happened a lot this season.
So what of the strategy to close out the game? Personally, I loved the fake FG try in overtime. Play calling is all about creating situations that favor the good guys, and the element of surprise with that call was certainly effective in doing so. Coach Rhoads has shown a knack for knowing when to throw a wrinkle into things on special teams, and Franklin was wide open, exactly as the coaching staff expected him to be. I think the situation that was created by that play was, on the whole, more favorable than lining up your offense with one shot to score against Nebraska’s regular defense on a compacted field. The throw just wasn’t there.
So if that’s going to be the call, why have your back-up punter throwing the ball there? Because he’s your regular holder, and you’re not going to sneak a QB onto the field without someone on the Nebraska sideline noticing and spoiling the element of surprise with a timeout. Kuehl has probably practiced that play dozens of times, and undoubtedly executed well enough in practice to justify making the call in a game. But, like many well-crafted plays, it just wasn’t well-executed on that particular repetition. That doesn’t make it a bad call.
Looking back to regulation, what about the decision to kneel down with 40 seconds on the clock and three timeouts remaining? As I mentioned earlier, play calling is about creating situations that favor your personnel. In an obvious passing situation, Coach Rhoads didn’t believe that he could create enough favorable mismatches against one of the nation’s best pass defenses to risk pushing the ball downfield. Nebraska had already intercepted Arnaud twice on the day, and Rhoads didn’t want to risk a third in that spot. I wasn’t completely sold on the decision at the time, but it makes sense in retrospect.
The play call that stands out the most to me seems to have been lost in the shuffle. On Iowa State’s second-to-last possession of regulation, the Cyclones had a 1st and 10 on the Nebraska 38 with around four minutes remaining. At that point I told myself, “We’re on the edge four down territory. Keep it on the ground, run the clock, and set Mahoney up for the game-winner.” Iowa State ran on first down, picking up two yards to the Nebraska 36. The second down call would be the turning point.
In my mind, Iowa State had a couple of choices at that point: Commit to running it three more times to pick up those 8 yards and a fresh set of downs, or get what you can on two rushes and attempt a more manageable FG on fourth down, hopefully much closer to the 30. Instead, Arnaud was sacked on a pass attempt, losing a yard and completely changing the complexion of that possession. Iowa State was forced to pass on third down (incomplete), and ultimately missed a 55-yard FG attempt, giving the ball back to Nebraska in favorable field position.
There are few ways to lose a game that are more gut-wrenching than what Iowa State fans witnessed on Saturday. Between the Kansas State and Nebraska games, the Cyclones are arguably just a couple of errant passes away from being 7-3 (5-1) and in the driver’s seat in the North Division. But no matter how difficult Saturday’s result was to stomach, you can take solace in this: The Cyclone football program has a leader who loves Iowa State and hates losing as much as anyone. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and has a set of brass ones that is rare for an Iowa State coach. And, most importantly, he has this reclamation project well ahead of schedule in just his second year on the job.
That’s a lot to be happy about, even on the heels of a very disappointing loss. Hopefully the team has refocused and is hungry to go out and secure win number six in Boulder against the other conference defector. Fresh off a loss to lowly Kansas, this bunch of Buffs is teetering on the edge of extinction. This game means more to the Cyclones, and they need to go out and play like it on Saturday.