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Development of run game, emerging young talent sparks Cyclone offense

Jacob Rice
Cartevious Norton steps into the end zone during the Iowa State vs. BYU football game. LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah, Nov. 11, 2023

AMES— Following a season-best performance on the ground, the Cyclones look to keep late-season offensive success rolling into their final two regular season games.

The Iowa State run game has come a long way since the beginning of the season, with credit going to the progression of the big men up front and the young tailback room.

Before non-conference play, the Cyclones averaged 86.3 yards per game, with both the offensive line and running backs struggling to create plays, which played a significant role in their 1-2 start. Iowa State’s rough start on the ground was lowlighted by its 38-yard rushing performance against Ohio.

Since entering conference play, the Cyclones have developed a solid run game to pair with quarterback Rocco Becht’s rising ceiling, which has put them in a position for postseason football.

Iowa State has rushed for over 120 yards in five of its seven games against Big 12 opponents, four of which have resulted in wins. The offense’s newfound success on the ground is headlined by a season-high 234 rushing yards against BYU, with the running backs accounting for 222 of those yards.

With the most experienced back in the room being redshirt sophomore Eli Sanders, the running backs were lacking in-game reps, and according to head coach Matt Campbell, they needed time to develop.

“I think you saw a lot of young guys grow up. I wish I could speed it up for some people but it’s a process,” Campbell said.

Outside of Sanders, who was absent in the Cyclones’ matchups against Iowa and Ohio, the only other returning running back is sophomore Cartevious Norton, who played in eight games last season. True freshmen Abu Sama III and Carson Hansen complete the young running back room.

Along with the inexperience in the room, Iowa State in recent years has been known for using a “bell cow” running back, and it would be a huge ask for any of the young backs to be trusted as the featured back.

The Cyclones have trusted their “running back by committee,” and Campbell praised the amount of competitiveness he has seen from each back and the success that has come with it.

“The neat thing is there’s great competition, and when you have great competition, it makes practice really rewarding and makes growth really rewarding. The guys that practice the best get to go to the game and play in the game, and so I think that is what has helped all those guys really start to develop at a faster clip than what we have seen at times,” Campbell said.

The biggest surprise out of the running back room has been Sama, who is responsible for some of the longest runs of the season. Much like Sanders, the Iowa native has been absent in a few games throughout the season but when healthy has consistently proven himself deserving of more snaps.

In his most recent outing against BYU, Sama became the first back to rush for over 100 yards since Jirehl Brock did last season against Iowa and added a pair of rushing touchdowns to bring him to three on the season.

“We’ve been waiting for that type of game from him,” Becht said. “Texas has dudes up front and we know that, so with the offensive line just getting their confidence going and with their talent and what they can produce on the field, [it] is going to be huge.”

Two of Sama’s scores have been on runs for over 55 yards where he has shown off his shiftiness and electric speed. He has opened up the offense with his constant ability to run to the outside and make defenders miss in space.

Senior offensive lineman Jarrod Hufford spoke on the true freshman’s breakout performance against the Cougars and the overall progress in the running back room.

“Especially [Sama’s] performance last week was incredible,” Hufford said. “That whole room, not just Abu [Sama] but Eli [Sanders] and Cartevious [Norton], all of them, they are really showing up now.”

While the run game has made strides throughout the season, Hufford admitted that there have been times when he and his fellow offensive linemen have missed their blocks. Luckily for them, each running back has made plays on the fly to extend the chains.

“Just knowing that back there in the backfield that they can make stuff happen even if we make a mistake is good to know back there, but obviously we try to do our best up front and try and make it as easy as possible for them,” Hufford said.

Last season, Iowa State finished as the worst rushing offense in the Big 12 in terms of total rushing yards. Part of the team’s struggle on the ground came from the offensive line missing blocks and failing to open up holes for the carousel of rushers in the backfield.

Hufford has seen highs as tall as a win in the Fiesta Bowl and lows as deep as a 1-8 record in conference play. He has seen firsthand through last year’s seniors, specifically Trevor Downing, the toll that the lack of success can take on someone who finished their final season.

Hufford talked about what he saw out of last year’s seniors after underachieving in conference play and reflected on how far this year’s team has come since their discouraging start.

“[Downing] and the other seniors felt bad about what happened last year and just leaving the place like that,” Hufford said. “Being able to after the rough start of this season and really coming back like ‘Hey now we’re bowl-eligible, we can go out with eight wins and potentially make the Big 12 Championship,’ I think that’s really powerful leading, especially for the younger guys on the team knowing what it is like to win.”

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Jacob Rice, Visual Editor
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