AMES (AP) — After a brutal seven-week stretch that included five losses against Top 25 teams, Iowa State is beat up.
At least the weary Cyclones finish the regular season against two teams that are struggling more than they are.
Iowa State (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) travels to face a one-win Kansas team on Saturday and finishes up at home against West Virginia, losers of four in a row, on Nov. 23.
The Cyclones know they could very easily lose to either the Jayhawks (1-9, 0-7) or the Mountaineers (5-4, 2-4) after suffering a 33-7 defeat at Texas last weekend. But Iowa State will get about as much of a break as any team in the Big 12 can hope for in a pair of unranked opponents.
“We are tired. We were tired (last) Saturday. Hopefully we’ll push through that. It happens, always, at some point in the season,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “We’re cutting back on practice a little bit this week to try to help their legs out as we make it into the final push of these last two games.”
Iowa State’s defense, which was one of the Big 12’s best for much of the season, has looked a bit weary over the past two weeks. And as Oklahoma and Texas combined for 68 points in comfortable wins, it’s clear Iowa State just isn’t the same team without linebacker Jake Knott.
Knott gutted it out during a 35-21 win over Baylor — even winning the Big 12’s defensive player of the week honor for his play against the Bears — but he’s probably played his last game because of a shoulder injury.
The loss has undoubtedly shaken up the defense. Senior A.J. Klein, arguably the most talented player Iowa State has, is still getting used to playing weak side linebacker after spending nearly his entire career at either the strong side or in the middle.
Iowa State also lost starting cornerback Jansen Watson (knee) early in a 35-20 loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 3. Rhoads said Monday that while he wouldn’t rule Watson out for this weekend’s game, it’s more likely that he’ll make his return against the Mountaineers.
The loss of two upperclassmen starters and the bruising nature of their last few opponents have affected the Cyclones on defense.
Oklahoma was 9 of 14 on third downs and Texas was 8 of 14. Iowa State simply couldn’t get off the field the last two weeks — which is both a symptom of being worn down and also a cause of it.
“When you’re on field as much as we were, and when you’re playing against physical teams like Oklahoma and Texas, it takes a toll on you,” safety Deon Broomfield said. “Third and fourth quarter, you’re on a 12-play series, it starts kicking in a little bit. You’ve just got to keep fighting through it.”
In past seasons, playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules would leave Iowa State struggling to compete by the middle of November.
But four years into his tenure at Iowa State, Rhoads has more depth to lean on than ever before.
The Cyclones are a bit lean in the secondary and with their linebackers because of the injuries to Watson and Knott. But they’ve got plenty of bodies on the offensive line and at running back with juniors Shontrelle Johnson, James White and Jeff Woody all more than capable of double-digit carries.
Iowa State also has as many as 12 defensive linemen it can play, which could prove to be invaluable over the next two weeks.
“We’re a little beat up on the defensive line, and that’s certainly a position that you’ve got to be as fresh as you can. Having the numbers that we have there helps,” Rhoads said.