ISU punt return game stellar in season-opening win


Josh Newell

Iowa State’s sophomore Wide Receiver Allen Lazard (5) jumps for the catch against Northern Iowa’s senior Defensive Back Deiondre’ Hall (1) during a play Saturday September 6, 2015 in Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa. The Cyclones triumphed over the Panthers 31 to 7, scoring three of their four touchdowns in the second half.

Luke Manderfeld

As Northern Iowa punter Logan Bieghler punted the ball away late in the fourth quarter, his team down by 17 points, there was no way to know what Iowa State’s Trever Ryen was about to do next.

The ball bounced far ahead of Ryen, ricocheting off the ground once, then twice and a couple more times. Starting punt returner Allen Lazard watched on the sidelines, sitting out because of the Cyclones’ large lead, thinking to himself.

“Don’t catch it, don’t catch it,” he said.

Ryen didn’t heed Lazard’s warning, picking up the ball in the middle of the fourth bounce and looking up. He found a seam quickly and started to run up the sideline.

“As soon as he grabbed it, I knew he was going to score,” Lazard said.

Ryen broke loose, weaving through the coverage team and found 40 yards of open field to run, using his speed to take him to the end zone for an 81-yard return.

Ryen’s return put a cap on a punt return game that was one of the few facets of Iowa State’s game that was consistent throughout the entirety of its 31-7 victory against Northern Iowa on Saturday night.

The punt return team, composed of Lazard and Ryen, combined for 193 returning yards, a school record and 17 more yards than the Panthers gained through the air.

ISU head coach Paul Rhoads was particularly surprised by Lazard’s impressive performance. During the preseason, they had never gone live for punt and kickoff returns.

“Who knew?” Rhoads said. “Who knew [Lazard] was capable of that with the ball in his hands? You knew he could catch it great, but that’s the experiment. The unknown is what would he do in live situations on the return?”

The answer was one Rhoads evidently didn’t see coming. Lazard amassed 100 returning yards, the first ISU player to do so since Ryan Baum in 2006 against Northern Iowa, on four returns.

His longest one, a 34-yard return in the third quarter, led to Lazard’s lone touchdown reception that put the Cyclones up 24-7. 

But his returns may not have come as simply if it wasn’t for the help from the UNI punter. 

A good punter attempts to put the ball far downfield while giving it a long time in the air, or good hang time, so his coverage team can get to the returner before the returner can gain significant yards.

Bieghler struggled to put the ball high in the air, giving Lazard an abundance of time, something dangerous to give to a playmaker.

“The punter didn’t have very much hang time so I was able to get the ball quick and set up blocks,” Lazard said. “My punt return team did a great job of making some blocks and I was able to make some moves and have some good returns.”

Although he didn’t score any touchdowns, his good returns set the ISU offense up with the ball in UNI territory on three of his four returns. On the only one return Lazard didn’t run into UNI territory, it was placed two yards away at Iowa State’s 49-yard line.

But the offense struggled to consistently capitalize on the advantageous field position, scoring only 10 points on the four ensuing drives.

“We definitely got some short field there and didn’t take advantage of it in the first half,” said quarterback Sam Richardson. “It makes our lives a lot easier, getting the ball on the plus side of the 50. There’s no excuse not to get points there.”

It wasn’t just the returners that had a good night. No returner is complete without the help of his blockers. That was the case on Saturday night.

The blocking team seemed to be the unsung heroes in the record-breaking performance.

“[ISU defense back coach] Shane Burnham always thoroughly, thoroughly prepares those kids for what he wants them to execute,” Rhoads said. “[A] lot of guys were involved in executing from a blocking standpoint and giving [Lazard] and [Ryen] the opportunity and they certainly did that.”