Dible Overtime: It’s not time to hit the panic button on ISU football — yet


The Cyclones beat the Panthers 31-7 during their first home game Saturday.

Max Dible

A certain snark has infiltrated segments of the ISU fan base during the past few seasons, and that snark has its own slogan.

If you’re a student or a fan who spends a significant amount of time on or around campus, you’ve heard it before. Maybe you’ve even said it before. There are different variations, but it goes a little something like this.

“Is it basketball season yet?”

I’m not asserting that those who appropriate this slogan to express their disappointment in the ISU football team have come by the snark dishonestly. But as far as this season is concerned, a self-imposed moratorium should be implemented on this type of sarcasm by frustrated fans.

To borrow a phrase from the legendary Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”

ISU coach Paul Rhoads brought a shovel to a team meeting Sunday after Iowa State’s double-overtime loss to Toledo. The intended message involved burying the loss, but as far as burying hopes for this season, it’s simply too early for that kind of talk.

The Cyclones are 1-2, their one victory coming against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Northern Iowa. Iowa State fell to in-state rival Iowa, always a disheartening defeat, and then on the road in heartbreaking fashion to Toledo of the Mid-American Conference.

On the surface, that’s not such an encouraging start, but when you look deeper, it’s not so bad as it seems.

“I wasn’t doing any teaching on Sunday,” Rhoads said. “I was trying to motivate and keep our confidence level high. We still believe we’ve got a much improved football team. Last time I checked, of the three opponents, the only loss on any of the three schedules is against us in UNI’s loss, so we’ve played pretty good football teams.”

UNI is ranked seventh in the FCS and defeated Iowa State in 2013. Iowa is 3-0, receiving votes in both national polls and is poised to go undefeated in its non-conference schedule for the first time since 2009.

Toledo is also undefeated, is flirting with a top-25 ranking of its own and was favored by 6.5 points at home against the Cyclones last weekend.

An errant, 32-yard field goal is all that separates Iowa State from a 2-1 record and having kept pace with the 4-1 start that I’ve said since before the season began would likely be a necessity for the Cyclones if they hope to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2012.

Without a doubt, Iowa State left a victory on the table in Ohio, but there is still reason to be optimistic. This is unquestionably the most talented ISU roster in three seasons. Rhoads has flat out said it, and the influx of athleticism on both sides of the ball is undeniable.

The problem is that in two years, the Cyclones have only won five games. There are a precious few players on the team today who know what it’s like to play in a Division-I bowl game, or to win as many regular-season games as they lose on the highest level of college football.

In short, this talented group of Cyclones doesn’t yet know how to win. The losses to Toledo and Iowa — a closer game than the 31-17 final score would indicate — are part of that learning curve.

“Finding ways to win is actually a phrase we’ve used this week in practice because at times in our past, we’ve found ways to lose games,” Rhoads said. “We’ve got to find ways to win, and I’m a firm believer that’s in work and preparation and doing things right so many times that you can’t do them wrong.”

Turning the ISU program around after amassing only five wins in two years was never going to be a quick process, but the progress is evident even in the midst of a 1-2 start that includes only one game against a Power Five conference team — if you know where to look for it.

Iowa State doesn’t need to win six or seven games to make this season a success. Success at this point in the rebuild is relevance. It’s hope.

Reaching five victories before the final game of the season and remaining in bowl contention for a full 12-game season is success in Ames, at least in 2015.

Losing to Toledo doesn’t help that cause, but it doesn’t snuff it out either.

ISU kicker Cole Netten divulged what ran through his mind as he saw his boot bend left. The thought was only two words — simple and deflating.

“That sucks.”

If you’re an ISU fan or player, it certainly did. And while your heart might have sank as you saw the Rockets hijack a celebration in the Glass Bowl that should have been yours, your hopes for a relevant season shouldn’t sink with it.

As the Big 12 season opens, beginning with Kansas at Jack Trice on Oct. 3, hope remains.

For now.