In the latest Staring Down The Musket feature, we decided to change things up a bit. While the traditional 5-question format is fun, it can get a little tedious. So, to help us out with a little more information about the Iowa State Cyclones, we exchanged a series of emails with CanAzn of the excellent ISU blog Wide Right and Natty Lite. As you can tell by the blog name, our fan bases have a lot in common. Now, on to the exchange:
Country Roads: How's the vibe in Ames this week? I'm assuming that when the schedule came out you didn't think WVU would be one fighting for bowl eligibility this weekend. Are ISU fans even excited about this game anymore?
Wide Right and Natty Light (CanAzn): Vibe in Ames is pretty subdued this week, but that's probably because of the students being out for break. Sam Richardson has the fans really excited though, with the best debut for a Cyclone quarterback in a VERY long time.
There's no way we figured West Virginia would have 5 wins at this point. Honestly, I thought they'd be right there with OU and Texas at the top of the conference, so that shows what I know. If only you had our defense or we had your offense...
We're still very excited about welcoming new guests to Ames. We've always been a friendly fanbase, and welcoming any and all Mountaineer fans for the first time is appealing. A win against WVU likely means Tempe or San Diego for us, and that sounds a hell of a lot better than New York City. And that's not to mention seeing Tavon Austin in action. The man is amazing.
How are WVU fans feeling about the season? Did the near victory over Oklahoma give the fans some hope?
CR: We do a weekly approval poll for the coaching staff and this week's numbers are up, but there is still a feeling of discontent that will happen when you lose 5 in a row after being 5-0 and ranked 4th in the country. I think there are signs there that we could finish up with a few wins to salvage...something other than a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl. I hope WVU fans realize what a treat it is to watch Tavon in action, he's been close to the lone bright spot in WVU's offense for his entire career (apologies to Noel Devine, Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey). I would love to make the trip to Ames sometime, but this year just isn't in the cards for me. You all have been by far the most fun fan base to interact with, and it's easy to root for the Cyclones when you're not playing WVU. I get the impression that your fans pack the stadium and rock out for every game, no matter your record. Is that true? And how do you feel about Sam Richardson's impending Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week award? You have to be licking your chops to see him break out just in time for every opposing quarterback's favorite defense to come to town, right?
WRNL: Our fans definitely pack the Jack every single game. I think decades of terrible football has made us appreciate the good (very relative) seasons even more. I'll admit that it's far harder to get a ticket now than it was about 5 years ago during the Chizik era when a buddy and I traded 6 beers for an upgrade in tickets, but even when we had 2 win seasons, our attendance was still better than Baylor's with RG3. Appreciate that we're your preferred fanbase, though you'll definitely enjoy OSU and KSU's too. We've always gotten along with them. I am 99% visiting Morgantown next year, so I'm looking forward to seeing your fans' well known fanaticism in person.
Sam Richardson did his damage against KU's mediocre defense, so it remains to be seen how good he is, but I will say he couldn't have looked much better. Accuracy, timing, and decision making were all there. Luckily, it's your defense coming to town, so he should be able to pick up where he left off. Of course, West Virginia will also have the benefit of having game film to watch, so we'll see if that makes a difference.
I like that we're both Pinstripe Bowl haters. Does anyone EVER want to go to NYC?
CR: Our fans have been ridiculously fickle in recent years. Attendance was spotty during the Bill Stewart era, and everyone used the "Big East teams suck, we don't wanna go watch them" excuse ad nauseum. Then we welcome #12 Oklahoma to Morgantown for the first time ever...and have 10,000 empty seats. To me, that's sickening and a pretty good indication that our fans have been incredibly spoiled by theera of 11-win seasons. And even in 2006, we got upset at home by USF in front of about 50,000 on a warm November Saturday. Yes, Thanksgiving break when the students are out of town has an effect, but it's still frustrating. It makes me jealous of your fan base, honestly, because that's how we used to be.
Anyway, I said all that to say this: I hope you're not disappointed next year by Morgantown. The team will be down after our offensive playmakers all graduate or declare for the NFL and no offense to you, but if fans don't turn out for #12 Oklahoma, I doubt Iowa State moves the needle much for them. Stick with the Smoking Musket crew, though, and we'll make sure you're treated right.
As for the Pinstripe Bowl, I honestly wouldn't mind if it was against a B1G Ten team instead of a Big East team. I think the reasoning there is obvious lol. And while NYC in December is pretty chilly, you have to try pretty hard not to have a good time there. Just so much to do, especially around the holidays. I'd go watch WVU play Northwestern in Yankee Stadium, but I refuse to freeze my ass off for Syracuse.
So other thanthrowing for 3/4 of a mile, who are the other ISU playmakers on offense that will be running free through the Mountaineers secondary Friday afternoon?
WRNL: That's too bad. IF Paul Rhoads gets us to the success level that you guys are at, I certainly hope that our fans will appreciate it, instead of being spoiled. I haven't been following your attendance closely, but with how excited Mountaineer fans seemed about the Big 12, I figured they would be sold out every game, even with the disappointing record. It still gets me every time that Milan Puskar looks exactly like a bowled in Jack Trice (which should happen by 2015).
Absolutely no offense taken. We know we're "just" Iowa State, and even with some recent success, old stereotypes die hard. I'm looking forward to visiting Morgantown regardless, and will definitely hit you guys up for the tour.
That's a fair point about Pinstripe. It's also a much better drive for you guys than it is for us... and less pricey. ISU fans travel extremely well, but even so, I'm concerned about attendance if we go to NYC again.
Other than Sam Richardson, we also have 3 pretty decent running backs. None are stellar, but there's Shontrelle Johnson who is shifty and will break off big runs, Jeff Woody who's our bruiser and short yardage back, and James White, who is more or less the in between option, and was Big 12 honorable mention last year. Our receivers have been decidedly unimpressive as a whole this year, but freshman Quenton Bundrage has been getting more snaps lately and looks like he will be legit. Josh Lenz is the steady senior deep threat, who missed several games and returned last week.
As far as your defense goes, are there glimmers of progress in the last few weeks? And is there help coming next year in terms of underclassmen/recruits? I've also heard some rumblings from WVU fans that there's some buyer's remorse about joining the Big 12. I have to assume this is a vocal minority, given what's going on with realignment. Again.
CR: Mountaineer fans are definitely excited about being in the Big 12 and anyone who speaks of "buyers remorse" should be flogged on site. Other than the proximity of road games and the loss of some of our traditional rivals (which had happened anyway with Pitt and Syracuse joining Virginia Tech in the ACC), there is nothing bad about playing in a conference with better teams, more media exposure, better bowl access, and greater revenue streams. I think we need to recalibrate our expectations just a bit, as 11-1 seasons in the Big 12 are hard to come by for even the best teams. But from a national perspective, 8-4 in the Big 12 is about the same as 10-2 in the Big East. Plus, if you want to elevate the program and maybe win a national championship one day, this is the kind of company you have to keep. It's just sad to me that a string of losses (however frustrating) has had this kind of effect on the fan base where attendance is back to to Bill Stewart era levels, even for nationally televised games against TCU and Oklahoma. If we get 50,000 for Kansas it'll be a miracle.
On a personal level, I feel like there has been some glimmer of progress. Yes, we gave up 50 points to Oklahoma, but they're a darned good team. We have played very well against the run, and I feel like our pass defense is getting better in the sense that they're in the general vicinity of receivers now and are actually making some hits and playing with intensity. One issue lately has been the lack of a pass rush - I don't think we sacked Landry Jones at all, which spells doom for your secondary. I think we have some quality young players who will benefit from a lot of playing time this year. One corner (the much-maligned Pat Miller) is a senior this year, and there are only a handful of other seniors on the defense who see significant playing time. Young guys like Karl Joseph, KJ Dillon, Nana Kyeremeh, Christian Brown, and Isaac Bruce are all young guys who should serve as a solid foundation for the next few years. That being said, the coaches are definitely mining the JUCO ranks for immediate help on defense, and also at the offensive skill positions. We clearly need a stud running back (and just got a verbal from a highly ranked kid out of Butler CC) and we could use a playmaker or two at receiver as our top 3 targets will likely be departing (Tavon Austin and JD Woods to graduation, Stedman Bailey probably to the NFL draft). Unless freshman QB Ford Childress is some kind of prodigy, though, next year will likely be a rough one.
What are your personal feelings on this game? I think WVU opened as a 1 point favorite, which sounds about right to me, despite the recent slide. Are Cyclone fans feeling pretty good about closing the season with a win at home? Or are the visions of Tavon Austin running free through the Oklahoma secondary enough to keep you up at night?
WRNL: What happened to the running backs? Shawne Alston looked decent against Clemson last year, Dustin Garrison was your leading rusher last year and has seemingly fallen off the face of the earth., and Andrew Buie seems like he has potential for only being a sophomore. Along those same lines, what's happened to Geno Smith? Is it just the Big 12 or is there more to it? The guy looked unstoppable at the beginning of the year.
I think that the line sounds about right. It's going to be a good game either way. I would say we're cautiously confident in a win. Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey terrify me, but if our best corner (Jansen Watson) is back from injury, we should be able to at least limit Stedman Bailey. Tavon Austin is going to be a problem for us, as you guys are using him at RB now. After losing all Big 12er Jake Knott for the season, the defense has looked worse at just about every facet of the game, but especially tackling, which is death against Austin. The defense has been on the field so much this season (and played at such a high level for the first 7 games) that you had to expect a decline coming at some point. The defense is holding on, but is the ultimate bend but don't break D: In Big 12 Conference games only, the Cyclones have allowed more first downs than any league team (209), yet are first in the league in red zone defense. We're holding just about every team to below their season average in points, so I assume we'll do the same to the Mountaineers.
Of course, holding West Virginia to below their average still means we'll have to score a bunch of points, and the biggest thing that worried me was our offense, but that seems to be improving. If Sam Richardson repeats his performance, then we're good to go. If we're back to the sputtering we showed against Texas and Texas Tech? Screwed.
CR: Shawne Alston looked like a beast against Marshall, then promptly went out and suffered a deep thigh bruise against James Madison. He hasn't been the same since. Garrison actually tore his ACL before last year's Orange Bowl, so I'm going to assume that his struggles this year are because of that and not that he simply regressed to the mean after racking up nearly half of his 700+ yards with a 300-yard day against Bowling Green last year. And Buie's only good game has been against Texas, which I still think was the result of their defense being geared more to stopping the pass and basically ignoring our running backs. Put all that together and we're neither very talented nor very healthy at running back. Tavon Austin is obviously fantastic back there, but he's not big enough to take 15 carries a game, which is why he's primarily a slot receiver. Hopefully some of our recruits this year can come in and contribute.
Geno I think is a bit of a head case. I wrote a piece about this earlier, but he cares so much about being perfect that he has a hard time letting go and just playing, which ends up hurting his performance. One thing that I think was a big detriment was Stedman Bailey's injury against Texas Tech. As Stedman got healthy again against Okie State, Geno started to look more like himself. Those two have been playing together since high school, so I think Steddy is a bit of a security blanket for Geno. That, and the rest of our receivers not named Tavon Austin have severely underachieved. At the end of the day, Geno is a very good college quarterback who should have a chance to play in the NFL if he can become more consistent.
As you said, ISU has played very well on defense this year, and should stand a good chance of slowing down the Mountaineer attack. But WVU hasn't exactly held true to form offensively either, with 14 points in consecutive games before a couple scores in the 30s and then the 49 point explosion against a pretty good Oklahoma pass defense. With the Tavon Austin RB wild card out there, I'm anxious to see how the offense looks when we go back on the road. It was interesting that you mentioned the red zone stats, because WVU really faltered in that area last year but has been significantly better this season. If we can finish drives, I'll feel better about our chances because our kicking game has been brutal this season.
Speaking of the kicking game, how are your special teams? The Mountaineers (read: Tavon Austin) have been very good in the return game, and decent in coverage until the last couple weeks, but have a horrible time kicking extra points, field goals, kickoffs, punts or anything else really. Is that an area where you think the Cyclones might have enough of an edge to turn a close game into a comfortable win?
WRNL: Your team is terrible at kicking too? Hey, we can be buds! We've been historically terrible, but Edwin Arceo has been on lately, going 3/3 on FGs and 6/6 on XPs last week. Over the whole season though? Mediocre at best. The odd thing is that he seems more confident kicking 40+ yarders than extra points. His kickoffs have not been terribly deep, though, so yes, another area where Tavon Austin scares me. I can definitely see this being a factor on Friday.
For special teams, we can start with punter Kirby Van Der Kamp, who should have been a Ray Guy finalist but narrowly missed the cut. He has 27 punts inside the 20 with only 2 touchbacks so I think we might be able to negate Austin there. As far as our return game goes, nothing special. Jarvis West, Aaron Horne, and Albert Gary have been doing the job. Very average on kickoff and punt returns.
The Cyclones tend to have a case of playing to their competition (with a few exceptions), narrowly beating a terrible Iowa team, but also falling just short of beating Kansas State. There's very little chance Iowa State turns this game into a comfortable win, unless Geno Smith absolutely implodes.
How about your feelings on the game? Can you just give us this one so we can avoid New York? I mean, it's not like you're not going to be bowl eligible after playing KU next week anyway. I'm also interested in your experiences with all the visiting Big 12 fans this year. Who was your favorite and least favorite fanbase? Any good stories?
CR: I honestly don't know what happened, but Tyler Bitancurt was 13/15 his freshman year including a game winner against #9 Pitt. Since then, he is 33/52 with 8 blocks and has missed 5 extra points, including 10/17 this year with 2 blocks and 2 missed extra points. And he's also now our punter, which should tell you something about the two punters we tried out before handing the job to him. I'm happy to hear that you guys don't have someone booting it out of the endzone on every kickoff, or kicking knuckleballs that bounce off our players for turnovers like Quinn Sharp from Oklahoma State was doing. If you end up kicking to Tavon, I'll be a very happy fan. I don't think your punting will be much of an issue, though, since you'll probably only punt once or twice the entire game. Although maybe if we can pin you back on our kickoffs, we'll have a better chance of keeping your offense on the field for 3 or 4 minutes before you score, unlike the usual 2 minute drives we've been giving up.
I feel okay about the game because the team looked much more crisp against Oklahoma than they had since beating Texas. I don't think we're as bad as we've looked the last 4 weeks, and at this point something has to give. As long as the team maintains their focus and motivation, I think we finally get a few breaks and win one. I say just okay, though, because we haven't had a losing streak like this since I was 5 years old and until we get off the schneid I'm going to be skeptical. Clearly, you guys are fielding a quality team capable of beating pretty much anyone, especially at home. My sanity won't let us give you guys this game, as I don't want to have to hold my breath over beating Kansas in the last game just to get bowl eligible. We once lost to a 4-7 Pitt team at home as 28 point favorites, so I know not to take anything for granted. How about this: we beat you guys and Kansas to get to 7-5 and go to the Holiday Bowl, Baylor wins one of their last two to get bowl eligible and goes to the Pinstripe, and you guys can have the Heart of Texas Bowl, or maybe take a spot from the B1G when they fall short on their allotment. Deal?
As for the Big 12 fans, they've been fantastic. I've really enjoyed talking to the folks who have come in from all across the country to see what West Virginia has to offer, and I hope they enjoyed their time in our beautiful state. I know our fans have made a huge effort to debunk our brutal reputation, and all the visitors I talked to were very complimentary of our hospitality. I just hope it continues throughout our time in the conference, and given the lack of hate that years of getting beat up on by Pitt, Penn State and Syracuse breeds, or the sheer arrogance of folks from Virginia Tech and Louisville, I think we will get along just fine. I'm not sure I have a favorite or least favorite fan base at this point, although some K-State folks certainly made a bad impression with a hillbilly video they made. Just a word of advice (that I don't think you need): as long as you're nice to us and don't bring out all the tired stereotypes, you'll be fine in Morgantown.
My best story is actually about a WVU fan we ran into after the Baylor game. My dad and I were at the Boston Beanery (great little restaurant/bar close to the stadium) grabbing food after the game and this 20-something who had been drinking probably for the last 36 consecutive hours stumbles up to the bar and tries to order about 4 different kinds of beer before he finally finds one they have (not that the selection is bad, but when you order a Natty Ice at a respectable establishment, you may come away disappointed). Immediately, dad and I become this man's BFFs, wherein he proceeds to brag about his girlfriend, and his wife. Somewhere in the middle of that story (I wasn't really paying attention as I was trying to catch highlights of our 70-63 win on the flat screen) either his wife or his girlfriend shows up behind him and overhears part of his tale. Naturally, she isn't too happy that she's not the only love of his life and begins to berate him in the middle of the bar. Unfortunately for her, he was too drunk to even care what she was saying and continued to brag to us about his promiscuous exploits. It was also a bone of contention between them that this fine gentleman had evidently been at the game with her, and announced he was getting up to go to the bathroom sometime during the second quarter. However, he did not go to the bathroom, he went directly to the Boston Beanery, where he had been drinking by himself the entire time. Thankfully, he ran out of cash to buy more beer and proceeded to allow his lady friend to physically drag him out of the bar, where he was supposed to get cleaned up and meet his in-laws for dinner that evening. I'm sure that meal went well.
We should probably wrap this up soon, since I'll be on the road for Thanksgiving weekend soon. What's your prediction for Friday?
WRNL: But I love making rash stereotypes! To be fair, I'm also ok with you assuming that I plan my life around corn and corn byproducts. Also, that's a pretty fantastic story, though I was definitely expecting you to say he raged after they didn't have Natty Ice.
I'm hoping the Mountaineer fans that do make it to Ames enjoy it, and if they need tips or a spot to tailgate, definitely have them contact me.
Your cynicism regarding your defense gives me hope, and because of that, my prediction (and you should definitely look out for KnowDan's preview too) is Iowa State 41, WVU 38 in OT. I'm thinking our defense starts slow and you guys take an early lead, but then both our units settle down and win a close one. We haven't had an OT game yet this year, so it seems about time for it. I guess this means no deal on Heart of Dallas. I'm all about a SoCal vacation this year. How about we just blackmail the selection committees into giving you guys Tempe and us San Diego?
CR: For the record, I'm okay with corn and corn byproducts. Especially bourbon. So, thanks for that.
As much as I want to go to San Diego this year, I want more to NOT go to the Pinstripe Bowl, so I will accept your offer for us to wind up in Tempe. Our last trip to the desert (Arizona, not Lubbock, Texas) ended pretty well, so hopefully we could repeat that.
Also, as cynical as I am about our defense (and Richardson having a breakout game does not make me feel any better), I am more of a WVU homer. And I'm not sure I can take going to overtime in an effort to get bowl eligible. WVU 45, ISU 35.
WRNL: The Big 12 schedule was released yesterday, and we're set for another probable Black Friday game. How do you feel about that? Personally, I like the fact we've basically replaced Nebraska-Colorado as THE Big 12 Friday game, but it does make it difficult for travel, and for selfish reasons, it probably means that I won't get to have the full Morgantown experience next year. I suppose if this rivalry turns into a must see every year, then it's all worth it.
CR: To be honest, I'm still coping with the idea that we aren't playing Pitt this week. As much as I hate those guys (and hate is understating it...oh, and F Paul Rhoads for helping orchestrate the most gut-wrenching loss in the history of Mountaineer football) there was something that felt right about WVU slugging it out on the gridiron with them the day after Thanksgiving. The weather is cold, the sky is gray, and two old, blue-collar programs from blue-collar areas knocking the snot out of each other just summed up the weekend for me. Going forward, I think it's hard to manufacture a rivalry. I think there could be something between WVU and ISU given the similarities in our fan bases, but I just know that great rivalries develop organically over time when teams play great games with a lot at stake. WVU and Virginia Tech had that going for a while, and after they left, Louisville came in and we immediately had a series of great basketball and football games that featured large comebacks, intense play, and heartbreaking losses. Plus it didn't hurt that they're located in Kentucky, which isn't a bad trip for fans in southern WV. Do I hope the Riot Bowl turns into that? Absolutely, but we'll have to wait to see. Have a great Thanksgiving.
WRNL: I completely agree. It's fun manufacturing this rivalry for the sake of entertainment, but it'll be years until the Riot Bowl is a real rivalry for the schools. Here's hoping Paul Rhoads hoses you guys again in 2 days.
Thanks again to CanAzn from Wide Right and Natty Lite for taking the time to chat about the game. Make sure to stop by WRNL for even more sophomoric humor, daily distractions, Iowa State info, and any requisite smack talk.