MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It was apparent the wheels were turning inside of Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads’ mind when he sat down to address the press following the Cyclones’ 31-17 loss to Tulsa in the 54th AutoZone Liberty Bowl Monday.
His mind was trying to articulate his thoughts about what exactly went wrong in the loss.
But it seemed more evident his thought process was two weeks into the future; that’s when the Cyclones (6-7) return to the weight room and continue their physical development.
Why was Rhoads thinking ahead? Because his team had just gotten beat — and badly — at the type of game he wants his program to play: fast and physical.
The Golden Hurricane dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, averaging better than five yards a carry while gaining 317 yards, and relentlessly flushing ISU quarterbacks Sam Richardson and Steele Jantz out of the pocket with their smaller, but quicker defensive linemen.
“Games are often won and lost at the line of scrimmage and we did not play a physical enough brand of football,” Rhoads said in his postgame press conference. “Things always start on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”
Moving forward from the game, Rhoads feels his program is building in the right direction despite a bowl game loss for the second consecutive season.
“Tonight wasn’t a success,” he said. “We lost a football game. But it is Dec. 31 and we’re here talking football and playing football and a lot of folks aren’t. When you get to the postseason in college football you have a successful season.
“Is successful defined as 6-7? No.
“Is what we have accomplished in four years good when you look at where our program was and look at the history of Iowa State football? Yeah, this is another successful season that we have to build on.”
The number one priority for the Cyclones will be improving offensive production. While the offense had some big games during the 2013 season, it was often maddeningly inconsistent.
Against Tulsa, with an ailing Sam Richardson (flu) struggling after a hot start, Iowa State had 10 drives of four plays or less, nine of them after it took a 17-7 lead.
The Cyclones had only five first downs in the final three quarters and none in the third quarter when the game was still within reach.
“If you look at a 13-game season and you are searching to find what identity (of the offense) is,” Rhoads said, “... identity and success are defined by moving the sticks and scoring points and we didn’t do it enough tonight and overall we haven’t done enough of that.”
Iowa State will have to replace numerous key cogs following graduation, including four seniors — Jeremy Reeves, Josh Lenz, Jake Knott and A.J. Klein — whom were part of Rhoads’ first recruiting class after being hired. All four played as true freshmen.
“This group is special,” Rhoads said. “It is our first recruiting class that we brought in as a staff.
“I have a number of them— I have to check to see how many true seniors we have like Jake, A.J. and Josh — that are going out this season and we have the guys who we inherited. They quickly became ours and we embraced that and wanted to give them a very fulfilling experience and I think we accomplished that.”
How hard the Liberty Bowl loss was on the seniors was apparent in Klein’s face after the game.
“It didn’t end how I wanted it to,” Klein said. “It’s hard to lose; nobody wants to lose. But things don’t always work out how you want them to.”
If there is any sign more evident that the Cyclones are moving in the right direction, other than three bowl games in four years under Rhoads, it is the fact ISU did not have to use a single true freshmen during the 2013 season.
Rhoads says the Liberty Bowl loss won’t slow down that building process.
“It is not going to ruin our offseason program,” Rhoads said. “You redirect where the motivation is. In 2010 (after a win at the Insight Bowl) we launched into our offseason. In 2012, we kicked them in the butt as we got started.
“As a coach you find the motivation, the inspiration, whatever it is.”