Dible Overtime: I’m not saying, I’m just saying

Freshman wide receiver Allen Lazard runs the ball against No. 7 Baylor on Sept. 27 at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones fell to the Bears 49-28. Lazard had 47 receiving yards.

Max Dible

When is it acceptable to use facts as excuses? Scratch that. Better question: At what point is it no longer acceptable to do so?

“In the fourth quarter, we had an opportunity to get an onside kick and pull this game within seven and put ourselves in position to compete to win the game,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads after the Cyclones fell last Saturday to Baylor, 45-27.

“And you do that on the road in conditions like this against the second-ranked team in the country, you’re pleased with the energy and the effort they gave, not pleased with the outcome.”

The rhetoric coming from the team has been centered around progress, and that’s fine, even if it does imply moral victory to a fan base that has celebrated only seven wins in its team’s last 31 games.

Concessions must be made. There are a number of new faces on both sides of the ball, and by any metric, the Cyclones’ recent schedule has been brutal.

These are the facts, and apologies if you’ve heard them at least a dozen times over the past month or so:

  • Iowa State has played the top three offenses in the land the past three weeks.
  • The Cyclones played the No. 3 and No. 2 teams in the country in back-to-back games.
  • At 2-5, Iowa State’s five losses have come to teams that are a combined 34-3 in 2015.

Iowa State is no football juggernaut. It never has been, and so ISU fans who follow the team closely knew a midseason storm was brewing well before the opening kickoff against Northern Iowa in September.

But progress in the abstract, or progress relayed by a coaching staff after midweek practice, or progress signified by moments in a game — taking a second-quarter lead against Texas Christian, outplaying Baylor 27-10 in the final 38-plus minutes — loses its allure and credibility after awhile.

Progress implies pending results, and those results yet remain absent.

“We’ve got to be able to sustain for a whole game and get a win,” said ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard on Monday on the Murph and Andy show on KXNO.

No one expected Iowa State to put up much of a fight against TCU or Baylor, let alone win those games. Vegas had the Cyclones slotted as multiple-touchdown underdogs in both contests.

And so it would be false to say that making TCU and Baylor sweat and giving the No. 2 Bears their closest game of the year by a margin of six points aren’t accomplishments; they absolutely are. The clearest positive is that ISU players appear as dissatisfied as Cyclone Nation with progress that’s yet to bear any fruit.

“I didn’t walk out of that game last weekend with my tail between my legs, but I didn’t walk out of there with a smile,” said Levi Peters, ISU linebacker and captain. “I wasn’t happy. I want to win. I really, really want to win.

“It’s nice to see progress every week, and that’s important too to keep guys’ confidence … but it’s nothing like winning games. We need to win games.”

The schedule lightens up substantially from this point on. Iowa State plays five teams with a combined record of 22-13, including two teams, Texas and Kansas State, with losing records.

Add to that the recent upheaval in Ames. It started with Mark Mangino’s enigmatic departure as offensive coordinator, which is still to be confirmed as a firing or a resignation, and ended with Joel Lanning replacing fifth-year senior Sam Richardson under center.

These developments have applied even more pressure on the Cyclones to transition from moral victors to actual victors, something they haven’t been since the third week of the season.

“When you’re sitting at 2-5, and teams that you’ve lost to are [34-3], and now the change as far as that [goes], you look at wins all the way down the stretch [as] important,” Rhoads said.

So what am I saying? That winning matters? Very insightful, I know.

The deeper points are that Iowa State left a win on the table in Toledo, and they’ve gone away from a veteran quarterback in favor of a young, rough-and-tumble gunslinger who has yet to prove himself in the pocket.

Rhoads has tossed aside an offensive mind that transformed Kansas — that’s right, Kansas — into an Orange Bowl victor and briefly the No. 1 team in the nation during the 2007-08 campaign. 

Rhoads said there wouldn’t be “drastic changes” to the offense but also talked about a “new direction” and “not being on the same page” with Mangino for weeks. A shift in offensive philosophy is coming, and, if it doesn’t work, the tsunami of change that may follow could make the last week in Ames seem like mere ripples.

If these moves fail then ISU fans, the media and even Pollard himself won’t accept any more talk about progress, any more references to strength of schedule or any more intimations about moral victory, even though that term has never been expressly used by an ISU coach or player.

Pollard indicated as much Monday, speaking about Rhoads and the team in ways not heard to this point in the season.

“I’m confident,” Pollard said, “but in the end, and Paul knows it, talk is cheap, and we’ve got to do it. These next five weeks are really important to how this season ends, which will determine a lot about the future of our football program.”

The die has been cast and excuses — factually based and legitimate or not — fall on deaf ears from here out.