By Rob Gray
AMES — There’s excitement.
Blue-sky dreams and slate-gray reality.
Opening night for Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads’ least experienced team has finally arrived.
And at 7 p.m. Saturday against Northern Iowa, the Cyclones begin to find out how much they can progress in another arduous season — tested by the nation’s sixth-toughest schedule, fortified by those Rhoads-nurtured qualities known broadly as trust and belief.
“We’re going to find out fast,” said Rhoads, whose starting lineup could feature 11 players who have never lined up for the initial snap of a game. “Don’t know how far along we can come. There’s no mistaking we’re young and inexperienced, but as you get on a field and you start to mature through snaps, I’ll be anxious to see how much growth actually takes place. I think this team, from (today) to the end of the season, will probably grow more than any other team we’ve had. How far? We’ll find out.”
Can ISU reach a bowl game for the fourth time in five seasons under Rhoads?
Can the Cyclones amble into the top half of the Big 12 standings, when outsiders doubt they’ll win more than one or two conference games?
Answers begin forming Saturday night — and they’d better be accompanied by a third-straight win against the always-worrisome Panthers.
“This game is so important to a lot of people,” said senior linebacker Jeremiah George, who will play his first game without current NFLers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott alongside. “And I know a lot of people are counting on not only myself, but this entire defense to prove ourselves. That’s what we need to do.”
It will likely be a wild ride, as usual.
That’s part of the allure.
“Everybody thinks they’re ready — ‘I know the playbook; I’m ready,’” George said. “‘But there are so many little things you have to continue to work on every single day. Jake and A.J., they taught me that.”
Jack Trice Stadium will be filled to capacity — thanks to ardent faith-based fan support that made even once-plentiful hillside tickets vanish from the common marketplace nearly two weeks before kickoff.
The crowd will ooh and ahh as George delivers big hits and quarterback Sam Richardson deploys the pistol-driven offense, passing to the likes of Quenton Bundrage and Ernst Brun, and handing off to James White and Shontrelle Johnson.
“I’m just trying to go out there and win a football game,” said Richardson, who will make his third career start.
There will be moans and groans, too — partly because of the challenges the Panthers pose, partly due to the neophyte status of many Cyclones, especially on the defensive interior.
“What’s the old saying? I sleep like a baby: I wake up crying every hour on the hour?” said defensive tackles coach Shane Burnham, whose two-deeps contain a couple titanic talents in David Irving and Rodney Coe, and a grand total of zero starts. “It’s excitement. There’s nerves. Anxious, maybe, is the right word as opposed to nervous. … I can’t wait for Saturday because I want to find out, when I’m not out there holding their hand, how they’re going to react.”
Uncertainty exists in every college football season, of course.
It merely varies by shades and degrees — and in that sense, 2013 resembles Rhoads’ first season of 2009.
There’s more talent, he said, but less experience.
“We didn’t know that ’09 team, probably, as well, but we had a pretty good idea of what it was that we had,” Rhoads said.
That turned out to be a surprising 7-6 Insight Bowl-winning team, forged in the wake of 10 straight Gene Chizik-led losses.
Few saw it coming.
Trust and belief.
“When (Rhoads) said jump, we jumped,” former quarterback Austen Arnaud said. “We asked how high when he said jump.”
They’re poised to leap again; staring down external doubt.
Just win, when many expect the opposite — except for today.
“I think that proverbial chip on your shoulder has always been apparent in this program,” Rhoads said. “I don’t have to coach that with these kids. They have it.”
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