AMES, Iowa – It didn't take long for many in the crowd of 56,800 at last week's Iowa-Iowa State game to realize that Cyclones quarterback Sam Richardson could barely run.
The ankle injury that Richardson suffered in a loss to Northern Iowa two weeks earlier was still bothering him.
With Richardson severely limited in his ability to run the zone-read option or even throw with consistency, Iowa State needed a running back to emerge as a threat that Iowa's defense had to respect.
No one could do it.
The Cyclones (0-2) stumbled to just 59 yards rushing on 24 carries in a 27-21 loss to the Hawkeyes — and they didn't have a single run longer than 9 yards.
Iowa State is averaging 3.3 yards per carry through two games. It's no coincidence that both of them were losses.
"Not to make excuses or anything, but we're young up front. We've got a lot of guys in new positions, and a lot of guys haven't got a lot of game-time experience. A lot of guys are feeling their way through everything," Iowa State senior running back Shontrelle Johnson said.
It's hard to argue with Johnson.
It can be hard to tell whether struggling running games can be pinned on the guys carrying the ball or the players blocking for them.
But Iowa State's young and banged-up offensive line has shouldered much of the blame.
The Cyclones were down to their third-string center against the Hawkeyes after backup Jamison Lalk — in place of the injured Tom Farniok — went down with a knee strain. Senior guard Ethan Tuftee also missed time against the Hawkeyes, putting added stress on an inexperienced unit.
"They're dropping every game, and we've got to get some continuity. We've got to get some guys that are playing 3, 4, 5, 6 series in a row together," Cyclones offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. "To this point, we haven't done a good enough job."
The Cyclones should get Farniok, who also strained his knee in the opener, back for next Thursday's game at Tulsa. They can only hope that his return can help the line begin to turn its season around.
"We've just got (to fix) blown assignments. It wasn't little things, like 'Oh, you missed this guy barely or something.' It was, 'We turned that guy loose,' or like, 'Where were you going with that one?'" We didn't have a ton of them, but even one of those was too many," Farniok said.
"We had too many guys not firing off the ball. I mean, they were blocking the guy, but they weren't getting that vertical drive."
If the Cyclones can get their line fixed, they shouldn't have so much trouble running the ball.
They appear to have more than enough talent at running back.
Senior starter James White averaged over 5 yards a carry in 2012, and he and Johnson combined for just over 1,000 yards a year ago.
Speedy junior Aaron Wimberly was one of the hottest junior college prospects in the nation before he committed to Iowa State, and senior Jeff Woody remains a viable short-yardage threat.
Still, the Cyclones running backs have totaled 141 yards in two games — or 4 yards fewer than Iowa's Mark Weisman gained just last week.
Richardson should be much healthier for the game against Tulsa. If so, his ability to run and pass more accurately should help free things up for everyone.
But the Cyclones are taking quite a risk if they keep giving Richardson 21 carries a game as they did in the opener against Northern Iowa.
At some point, Iowa State will need to establish a more traditional ground game with running backs sustaining drives behind an improved line.
"The only thing we can do is go back to the drawing board and get those guys ready to play those snaps and be ready when their time is called, so they can step in and do a good job. So, we've just got to make it work," Johnson said.
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