ISU mistakes serve as kryptonite against Big 12 offensive juggernauts

Running back Mike Warren celebrates a touchdown during a game against TCU on Oct. 17, 2015. The Cyclones lost 45-21.

Max Dible

Wally Burnham has been a defensive football coach for more than four decades, but even he hasn’t seen it all — at least he hadn’t before he laid eyes on the tape of Baylor this season.

“[Baylor is] so far ahead of anyone else offensively,” Burnham said. “Back in the day when I was at Florida State, we played Nebraska, and they were really good. We played Florida, and they were really good. We played Miami and Auburn, and they were really, really good. Offensively, they don’t come close to Baylor.

“It’s the most prolific, efficient offense I’ve ever coached against.”

There are few reasons and even fewer avenues by which to sugarcoat the matchup the Cyclones are slated for this Saturday in Waco, Texas. Baylor is the nation’s No. 1 offense by a large margin and by any objective measuring tool available, simply a better team top to bottom than Iowa State.

The better team loses more frequently than pre-game odds would suggest, especially in college, where consistency of play isn’t a guarantee even on the most vaunted of rosters. So for the Cyclones, the name of this particular game must be perfection in execution and flawless consistency.

After falling to Texas Tech and Texas Christian by a combined score of 111-56, flawlessness is the only way to keep pace with a Baylor team that leaves both of those high-powered offenses in its dust, statistically.

Iowa State’s path to flawless consistency and execution starts with blanking out unforced errors and penalties that rob the team of valuable yards.

“We’re stopping ourselves. Our wounds on offense are self-inflicted,” said ISU offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, referencing how his offense stalled out after grabbing a 21-14 lead last weekend against TCU heading into the second quarter.

“If you look at the game and study and analyze it, we’re moving the ball the whole game, but we have these self-inflicted wounds once we get across the 50-yard line. We’ve got to stop it.”

Tied at 21-21 in the second quarter, Iowa State found itself in the red zone before an errant option pitch changed both the possession of the ball and the momentum of the game. Against the top Big 12 competition, whether it’s TCU last week, Baylor on Saturday or Oklahoma two weeks down the road, one play is all it takes.

But that’s a phenomenon that can work both ways, even against relentless, high-powered offenses.

“I think that play [against TCU] where we were going to throw a deep post, and the [cornerback] comes unblocked, and we fumbled the ball — that could be a 14-point swing there just like that,” Richardson said of the team’s second turnover of the game. “We were really close there on Saturday. It was one play away.”

The Cyclones also committed eight penalties against the Horned Frogs, costing themselves 55 yards. Three of those penalties afforded the Horned Frogs first downs, and when opposing a Baylor offense that’s even more prolific, moving the ball for the other team is tantamount to football suicide. 

The rest of the penalties were mostly senseless, pre-snap issues that stalled drives; another Achilles’ heel when 40 or 50 points are generally required even to be competitive in a game against a team like the Bears, let alone win it.

Perhaps that’s more to the point. In terms of overall penalty yards this season, Iowa State actually hasn’t been all that bad.

The Cyclones rank 52nd nationally in penalty yards incurred per game at 52.7, seeing just over six yellow flags tossed their way by the refs every outing. But if even one such penalty extends a Baylor drive or halts an ISU drive, it could prove a wind of change strong enough to slam the door on the Cyclones.

“It’s just knowing that you can never be satisfied, you’ve always got to be pressing because you never know how a game can change there toward the end, and what play is going to change the outcome of the game,” Richardson said. “That’s the beauty of football. Anything can change any part of the game at any time.”

Mangino made assurances that if the Cyclones on the field can’t find a way to change the game in the way Richardson referenced, then the change will come from the sideline; more specifically, from the coaching staff in the form of adjustments to lineups and playing time.

ISU coach Paul Rhoads echoed Mangino’s sentiment.

“Playing time is a pretty good way of having leverage,” Rhoads said. “It might be one of the final ways that you have leverage.”