Thursday, April 12, 2007

Iowa State Spring Football Preview


I am very wrong about many things, but I nailed this one. While some people were saying that 2006 would be Iowa State’s time to shine after two near misses (i.e. gags) in the North Division, I correctly predicted that things would fall apart in Ames (seriously, I pat myself on the back when I can because opportunities are usually pretty limited...for instance, I just knew there was no way that Florida would repeat as national champs in basketball, but that’s a completely different story). Somewhere in early October, it dawned on people that Dan McCarney really hadn’t put together a team with much discernible talent, and since the rest of the North Division had all begun to improve, Iowa State got left in the dust. They were a ball control team that could only average 3.0 yards per carry for the season; they were an experienced offense that only topped 350 yards in a game once during Big XII play (and only three times, total).

(Of course, none of this stopped them from beating Missouri in the finale, but hey...the refs wanted to send McCarney off as a winner...what can I say? Yes, I’m bitter. Yes, I need to learn to let these things go. And yes, the holding penalty called when Chase Daniel damn near killed himself scoring on 4th-and-goal from the 1 with 20 seconds left was just about the worst, most completely nonexistant penalty I’ve ever seen. Just horrible. But I’ll stop my rant there. This is about Iowa State.)

Because of the complete and total collapse of 2006, however, Iowa State got a new coach, and he could be a good one. Gene Chizik was the Defensive Coordinator for both Auburn’s undefeated team in 2004 and Texas’ undefeated team in 2005. He’s young and aggressive, and he thinks he can build a winner in Iowa State (that’s important because he probably could have waited another year or two and become head coach of a much bigger-name team...I guess he still could, but it’s not nearly as likely now).

Key Returnees

While the cupboard isn’t bare in Ames, it will probably take Chizik a while to build a solid base of talent. Bret Meyer, who started his career with great promise, has proven to be a decent-but-not-spectacular QB, and he has some weapons at WR—particularly Todd Blythe (who has been ISU’s #1 WR since his very first game in 2004) and R.J. Sumrall. Chizik didn’t inherit much—if anything—at RB. Returning RB’s Jason Scales and Josh Johnson combined for all of 236 yards in 77 carries last year (though in Scales’ defense, he was battling injury most of the season). Chizik quickly tried to address that in recruiting, bringing in JUCO RB Jamicah Bass. Lord knows Bass will have every opportunity to prove himself in the fall. The O-line was hit heavy by graduation—junior OG Tom Schmeling is the only returning O-lineman who has truly proven himself to any degree. Bret Meyer will be protected by two first-year starters at tackle...rarely is that a recipe for success.

If the O-line was hit hard by graduation, the D-line was demolished. Gone are both starting DE’s (including Shawn Moorehead, ISU’s all-time sack leader) and DT Brent “Big Play” Curvey. WLB Alvin Bowen, the nation’s leading per-game tackler last season (12.92/game) returns. With a D-line as porous as this one, Bowen should have ample opportunity to repeat as the nation’s tackle leader. Senior Jon Banks also returns, but junior Tyrone McKenzie doesn’t—he transferred to South Florida. In the secondary, SS Caleb Berg and CB Chris Singleton are experienced starters, and two sophomores, CB Drenard Williams and FS James Smith, have potential. This isn’t a great unit, especially if the Front Seven fails to make plays and leaves the DB’s in a precarious situation, but the secondary is probably the least of Gene Chizik’s worries. The D-line will need some work.

Special teams will be solid for ISU. Senior PK Bret Culbertson is a very good kicker against anybody other than Missouri (3 of his 9 career FG misses have come in the 4th quarter or OT against Mizzou), and sophomore punter Mike Brandtner was good as a freshman (41.2 yards per punt). Milan Moses is a pretty good kick returner, though they’ll have to find somebody to replace Ryan Baum at punt returner.

Spring Developments

Honestly, I’ve found next to no information about what’s been happening in ISU’s spring practices. ISU’s official site doesn’t have crap, and barely has more. The main focus, from what I’ve been able to tell, has been on having the Chizik mentality, meaning lots and lots of physical drills and D-line depth. Beyond that? Who knows.

Fun With Numbers

As discussed previously, here were the five statistical categories that were most directly related to ISU’s success/failure last year (aside from the refs calling holding on 4th-and-goal from the 1):

1. Third Down Ratio
2. Opponents’ Passing Attempts
3. Rushing Yards
4. 3rd Down Conversion %
5. Opponents’ Pass Completions

Now, under a new coach, these things could change pretty significantly. And I still find #2 and #5 very curious—they were the only team whose fortunes were significantly improved by their opponents passing more. I do think the only explanation for that is, when they were winning, it was because they had grabbed an early lead and the opponent had to pass more...and when they didn’t grab an early lead, they probably weren’t going to grab a late lead, if you know what I mean.

So will ISU be any better at these factors in 2007 than in 2006? Um, probably not. Unless the Chizik Mindset is immediately noticeable and significant (which, I guess, isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility), ISU really won’t have much of a pass rush to stop teams from converting 3rd downs, and their O-line is going to be inexperienced and not all that talented...making it hard to convert 3rd downs or pile up rushing yards.

Just in case you couldn’t tell, I’m not thinking ISU will make a lot of noise in the fall. I was impressed that Chizik took the job, and he really could be the real deal, but it’s still going to be his first year as a head coach at this level, and he just doesn’t have much talent to work with. Line play on both sides will be pretty poor and the offense officially has one known weapon (Todd Blythe). The ’07 schedule has four relatively winnable nonconference games—they get Iowa at home, though a trip to Toledo will probably be a problem. However, after Toledo, they have to travel to Lubbock and Lincoln before finally getting back home...for games against Texas and Oklahoma. Ggh. If they’re somehow 4-4 when they head to Columbia on October 27, then Gene Chizik has done one fantastic job. However, I’m thinking 2-6 at that point (and about 3-9 overall) is much more likely. Chizik’s got his work cut out for him, though he seems like the type to embrace the challenge.