AMES, Iowa (AP) — The longest regular season in Iowa State history is just about finished.
The season itself will likely last at least another month, an extension many thought the Cyclones wouldn’t get in 2010.
Iowa State (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) closes out a regular season that began before Labor Day when they face No. 16 Kansas State (9-2, 6-2) on Saturday.
The Cyclones are entering their 14th week of in-season practice thanks to a pair of bye weeks, and their win over No. 3 Oklahoma State on Nov. 18 will earn them an extra three weeks of work before an expected bowl bid against an undetermined opponent.
Iowa State is coming off a 26-6 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, but coach Paul Rhoads said the Cyclones are still playing better at the end of this long season than they were when they started it.
“We go into the month of December with an opportunity to earn two more victories, a position any coach would like their program to be in,” Rhoads said.
The Cyclones were picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Big 12, which featured a nine-game, round-robin schedule for the first time after Nebraska and Colorado left the league. Instead of bowing to the pressure of playing everyone else in one of the nation’s most competitive conferences, Iowa State got better.
The Cyclones have won three of their last four games after an 0-4 start in the Big 12, and even their 20-point loss to Oklahoma showed signs of progress. Iowa State lost 52-0 in Norman in 2010. But the Cyclones were just the second team to hold the Sooners under 30 points, and Oklahoma could only muster a field goal in the second half.
“We entered November, we were playing for something — and the actions of our players have reflected that,” Rhoads said. “There’s been no diminish to our work, our attitude is fantastic right now. Our kids, from Sunday through Saturday are really working and enjoying the game of football.”
Iowa State’s offense has been better since Rhoads made the switch from Steele Jantz to freshman Jared Barnett in late October. The measly six points the Cyclones scored last week showed there is still work to do, but Iowa State’s defense has blossomed from inconsistent to solid since allowing 52 points to Missouri on Oct. 15.
The Cyclones have allowed just 74 points in their last four games and now rank a decent sixth in the Big 12 in total defense. They’ve been led by junior linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, now second and third respectively in the Big 12 in tackles, and a secondary that’s allowed the third-fewest passing yards in a pass-happy conference.
“Lights go one at different times. Sometimes it is in class, meaning from junior year to senior year and so forth. Sometimes it’s during the season, and I think the understanding of our defense, more specifically the understanding of the game plan and how specific it is to our success is really heightened right now,” Rhoads said. “I think we’re tackling awfully well. ... I think our pursuit and speed to the football is really good right now. And maybe it was that midseason Missouri debacle that helped turn that light on.”
For Iowa State, a win over the favored Wildcats might be enough to push the Cyclones further up the bowl pecking order. But simply reaching bowl eligibility is an accomplishment for Iowa State, and it got there because it thrived during a stretch that many believed would be too tough for the Cyclones to overcome.
“Coach Rhoads told us that a hot November team is dangerous, and we embrace that,” Iowa State nose guard Stephen Ruempolhamer said.