AMES — Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads pounded the table with his fist not once, but twice.
The subject: The Cyclones’ running game.
Rhoads’ demeanor: Serious, but framed by a faint, wry smile.
“I’m not a you’ve gotta run the ball guy,” Rhoads said before fist-pop No. 1. “But you’ve gotta run the ball.”
As ISU prepares for Saturday’s 11 a.m. FX-televised Big 12 showdown at perpetually explosive Oklahoma State (3-2, 1-1), offensive consistency serves as a clarion call.
The 4-2, 1-2 Cyclones — who reached another milestone by being ranked No. 24 in the initial BCS standings — average 143 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 85th nationally, and is the lowest through six games in the Rhoads era.
The ISU coach’s rushing target is 200, but added “right now I’d settle for 180.”
How about 190?
The Cyclones are 14-4 under Rhoads when churning up that many yards or more on the ground and 8-18 when falling short.
“If we get the running game going, they can’t blitz as much,” said Cyclone quarterback Jared Barnett, who completed 44 percent of his passes in Saturday’s 27-21 loss to No. 4 Kansas State. “They can’t sit back and wait for us to throw.”
But there’s a yin and yang aspect to it.
Kansas State loaded the box, daring ISU to throw deep.
Barnett connected on two big gainers — a 27-yarder to Aaron Horne and a 30-yard touchdown to Ernst Brun, but misfired enough to make the Wildcats’ worthwhile.
“Pitch and catch seems easy, but when there are defensive players out there and people sliding around you from a rush standpoint, you need to do things fundamentally sound, so all the, quote, gimmes, you complete,” Cyclone offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. “And we didn’t complete all the gimmes.”
Still, Barnett feels the offense is very close to jelling.
And part of its rushing difficulties stem from the competition.
All five of the Cyclones’ FBS opponents rank among the nation’s top 31 against the run — with four ranked 17th or better.
“We just have to get our timing down, making sure me and the receivers are on point and on the right page at the same time,” said Barnett, who posted career highs in yards (376) and touchdown passes (three) in last year’s 37-31 double-overtime upset triumph over the Cowboys. “We really have to get that running game going so we start opening it up down the field a little bit.”
Nothing opens up the playbook like successful first down plays.
And ISU gained as many as seven yards on first down just once against Kansas State, while averaging less than two yards on drive-opening plays.
Second-and-long makes taking shots riskier and changes a game more than meets the casual observer’s eye.
“If you have a deadline and your boss says, ‘This is due at 3,’ and he tells you that eight in the morning, you go, all right, ‘I’ve got some time to work on this,’” said running back Jeff Woody, who had the Cyclones’ longest run of scrimmage last week of 11 yards. “But the equivalent of second-and-10, or third-and-10 is if he says, ‘You have this due at 3 o’clock,’ and tells you that at 2:51. You are pressed, you’re stressed out, it’s a lot harder to do your job. And it’s a lot harder to do it well.”
WHITE UPDATE: Rhoads said running back James White has surgery on his injured (right) knee last Thursday and remains, he hopes, on target for a return in two weeks.
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