ISU offense starts, stops with running back Mike Warren

Mike Warren and Jhaustin Thomas

Max Dible

Mike Warren is more than just the nation’s top freshman running back. He’s more than just the second leading rusher in the NCAA since assuming the starting role at Iowa State against Toledo. He’s more than the first ISU rusher to put up 200 yards in a game since Ennis Haywood in 2001.

He’s the primary catalyst to an efficient, productive ISU offense — and that’s not an opinion, it’s a statistical fact. Despite that, Warren remains unselfish and team-oriented.

“I know I said before that I want to be a 1,000 yard rusher, but at this point, I just want to win a few more games,” Warren said. “I don’t care if I get to 1,000 yards or not. It’s a team game, and I’m not in it for individual stats.”

But what’s good for Warren is good for the team, and the numbers prove it.

The assertion that Warren is the most important Cyclone on offense — absent statistical analysis — might seem both obvious and wrong simultaneously.

It seems obvious because by compiling 546 rushing yards on 8.8 yards per carry — following only 28 yards on nine carries through the first two games — he’s been by far the most productive Cyclone in a three-game stretch starting at Toledo on Sept. 19.

Warren has also scored two touchdowns, while setting up the ISU offense for several more.

The assertion seems wrong because during that same stretch, the Cyclones are 1-2 — including a 66-31 throttling at the hands of Texas Tech last Saturday — during which Warren rushed for a whopping 245 yards on only 23 carries.

So it would appear that no matter how wildly productive Warren is, he alone can’t elevate the ISU offense to the next level.

But examining the Cyclones’ offense drive by drive, a different story emerges. Over the last three outings, Warren tallied at least two carries on 11 drives. The Cyclones scored on nine of those possessions.

And one of the two drives on which the Cyclones came up empty ended with a missed Cole Netten field goal.

During that same span, the Cyclones have led 27 drives on which Warren has carried the ball one time or fewer. Iowa State has scored on only seven of those possessions.

If the Cyclones want a more effective offense, the answer appears clear: give Warren the football more often. Through the last three games, he’s averaging just shy of 21 carries per outing, and ISU coach Paul Rhoads now believes the redshirt freshman can handle a bigger load.

“He can shoulder more,” Rhoads said. “There was one time that Mike was tired in the game [against Texas Tech] that we still had him out there … but as he gets more accustomed to more carries and more yardage and more work, he’ll be fine with what we give him.” 

The sooner Warren can get the conditioning and the subsequent touches the better, as No. 3 Texas Christian rolls into Ames Saturday and Iowa State heads to No. 2 Baylor the following week.

TCU boasts the nation’s third-highest-scoring offense at 51 points per game. Baylor is even better, slotting in as the NCAA’s most prolific scoring offense with 64.2 points per contest.

“I think that more carries will be beneficial for the offense just so we can stay in the game longer and up our time of possession against high-powered offenses like TCU and Baylor,” Warren said.

The Red Raiders lost the time-of-possession battle to the Cyclones by less than four minutes, despite more than doubling Iowa State’s point production. Those numbers will never correlate to a victory.

The explosive, big-play potential of Texas Tech — a trait shared by both TCU and Baylor, and one the ISU defense couldn’t curb last Saturday — has a lot to do with that.

But an offense on the sideline is an offense marginalized and perhaps the best defense the Cyclones can muster against the Horned Frogs. Short ISU drives are fine if they end in points, but extended drives might well prove the difference between a competitive ISU team and one that loses by a large margin these next two weeks.

The formula to achieve both clock-eating drives and point efficiency starts and ends with feeding Warren the rock — frequently. 

“I think the amount of times I run will increase for this game,” Warren said. “We need to hold the ball longer and milk the clock even more, so I believe my workload will increase this game.”