AMES — There are upsets and there are upheavals.
Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads has proven adept at conjuring up a blueprint that produces both levels of surprises.
But at 7 p.m. Friday when the Cyclones storm the Jack Trice Stadium field as 26-point underdogs against No. 2 Oklahoma State, even the best-laid — and executed — plan will need a good measure of help.
“We’ve got to play our best game and there’s got to be some things that adversely affect them,” Rhoads said candidly about the unbeaten Cowboys. “They’re going to have to turn the ball over. They’re going to have to uncharacteristically throw some bad balls, miss a block, slip out of a route. Things like that are going to have to take place to give us an opportunity to pull off what would be an unheard-of upset.”
There’s precedent — and Rhoads stood at the center of one such stunner.
His 2007 Pittsburgh defense held Pat White’s national-championship caliber West Virginia offense to 183 yards in a BCS landscape-shifting 13-9 regular-season closing win on the road.
The Panthers were 28-point underdogs. They entered the game with four wins.
The Mountaineers had 10.
“I think they were equally explosive,” Rhoads said of West Virginia of 2007 in comparison to the current Oklahoma State team. “I don’t know if their numbers were quite as gaudy as Oklahoma State’s, but they were high and they could score and score fast with a number of different weapons.”
With that in mind, a highly-circumstantial what-if case could be made for ISU in Friday’s showdown with the Cowboys, who average 52 points per game and lead the nation with 34 takeaways.
It starts with ...
- Extra points
Not just PATs — and lots of them, but unexpected scores from the defense or special teams. A pick six here. A return for touchdown there. One or more are needed.
“You’ve got to change up your style,” said Cyclone senior defensive end Pat Neal who leads the team with 2.5 sacks. “Try to get in the passing lanes.”
- Ball security
Given Oklahoma State’s proclivity for raking balls loose (15 fumble recoveries) and duping quarterbacks into unwise throws (19 picks), a zero turnover game ranks among the biggest keys for ISU’s offense.
The Cyclones rank 110th nationally in turnover margin.
“They just give so many different looks on defense,” said ISU quarterback Jared Barnett, who’s thrown for one touchdown and two interceptions. “They really try to confuse you. ... You’ve got to go into the game ready for that.”
- Eat clock, finish drives
The Cowboys can score so quickly, their defenders tend to get gassed. Hence their need for opportunism. If ISU can keep them on the field for extended periods, they could conceivably break down. Not that’s not happened yet, but ...
“I think if we go out there and play like we know how to play and do our jobs, I think we can drive on them,” said Barnett, who ran for 125 yards in the Cyclones’ 13-10 win over Kansas. “We’re going to have to give our defense time to rest, keep them off the field. And we’re going to have to put the ball in the end zone.”
- No yards after catch, no empty arms
Rhoads said he watched the first quarter of the Cowboys’ 66-6 trouncing of Texas Tech last week before deciding he’d rather spend time on dirt bikes with his sons. He lavished praise on Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and said he “shivers” when viewing incontrovertible video evidence of receiver Justin Blackmon’s big-play capabilities.
“Somehow,” Rhoads said, “we’ve got to minimize opportunities and plays like that for them.”
Easier said than done.
But exciting to try to pull off.
“You watch games on TV like this and you’re like, ‘Wow, I wish I was in that position,’” ISU linebacker Jake Knott said. “It’s no different now. You want to have that chance to play a team like this.”
And who knows?
A few breaks here, a surprise there ...
“A lot of things have to happen in a game like this,” Rhoads said. “But who’s to say they can’t?”
When Oklahoma State has the ball
- Take it away. The Cowboys are astoundingly good at forcing turnovers (34, no other team has forced more that 24), but middle of the road in preventing them (16 given up, tied for 52nd). Need at least three takeaways.
- Ground ‘em. It’s pick your poison. OSU has thrown the ball 459 times and rushed it 326 times. The Cowboys are very good on the ground, just not as explosive (Joseph Randle, 993 yards, 21 touchdowns).
- Hit Weeden. The Cowboys’ offensive line is solid, allowing just 1.1 sacks per game. But if ISU can at least produce a handful of hurries and legal quarterback hits, Brandon Weeden will have something to think about.
- Wrap up Blackmon. Wide receiver Justin Blackmon is an unstoppable force. He’ll make big plays. The key is limiting yards after catch. He’s scored a TD in nine straight games, but has been held to 84 or fewer yards four times.
- Three’s the key. Surprisingly, OSU is tied for 24th in red zone offense (with Iowa, among others). Trouble is the Cowboys have been there more than anybody else. Kicker Quinn Sharp is 16-for-19 on field goals.
When ISU has the ball
- Hone the zone-read. Cyclone QB Jared Barnett rushed for 125 yards in the Kansas win, thanks largely to zone-read runs, but ball security has been an issue. Barnett, Rhoads has said, can hold the ball a bit too long. Can’t happen Friday.
- O-line all-stars. A banged up offensive line has risen to the occasion most games this season. They’ll need their best all-around effort so far, by far. OSU is 25th in sacks (2.5 per game), but 88th in rush defense (186 yards per game).
- Shake free. If there’s one ISU receiver who can most change a game, it’s Darius Reynolds. He sat out the Kansas win after violating team rules. The senior nicknamed “Money” needs to be just that Friday night. That, and reliable.
- Make time. Oklahoma State scores so quickly, they have been out-possessed by an average of six minutes per game. ISU averages 20.4 first downs a game (tie, 60th nationally). They’ll need at least 25 Friday.
- Flatten Blatnick. Cowboys defensive end Jamie Blatnick is tough, strong and downright mean. He’s recorded seven sacks this season and 9.5 tackles for loss. Keeping him out of the backfield is paramount.