Big 12: George Veenker

KSU, ISU have made a jumble of North Division race so far in 2009

October, 26, 2009
10/26/09
5:44
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The Big 12 North has been a surprise in ways that would have seemed unimaginable before the season started.

But it still doesn’t explain the unlikely scenario now in place with Kansas State in first place and Iowa State a game behind among a jumble of four teams with two conference losses.

The Wildcats and Cyclones were the fashionable preseason picks to battle it out to escape the conference cellar.

Their ascension while projected conference contenders like Nebraska and Kansas have stumbled in recent weeks has turned the early North Division race on its ear after its early stages.

The Cornhuskers have lost back-to-back home conference games to Texas Tech and Iowa State -- both times as heavy favorites.

And Kansas followed a disappointing loss at Colorado last week by getting run out of their home stadium in a 35-13 home loss to Oklahoma, a team that was struggling with the largest loss of injuries in Bob Stoops’ coaching tenure.

The early surprises have kept Kansas coach Mark Mangino from even trying to explain what’s going on in the wild and wacky division so far.

“I can’t think of any,” Mangino said. “I spent a little time trying to figure out what’s happening and those are for better minds than mine. I just need to get ready and see what we can do. Maybe somebody might have a better explanation, I don’t know.”

Kansas State might have been the biggest unknown in college football with the return of Bill Snyder to the sidelines after a three-year coaching sabbatical.

His rebuilding job was made that much tougher when, shortly after he started, Josh Freeman declared for the NFL draft.

The Wildcats stumbled early with losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and UCLA with their only victories over FCS teams Tennessee Tech and Massachusetts. Their positioning at the bottom appeared even more solidified after those first four games this season.

Even after a 20-6 victory over Colorado last week boosted them to a 3-1 -- their best conference start since 2000 -- Snyder was more disappointed in what the Wildcats didn’t do, as opposed to the fact they are sitting in first place midway through their conference race.

Snyder was particularly angry about his team being shut out in the second half by Colorado after scoring on three of their first four possessions.

“The name of this game for us is trying to get better. We got better on defense and I am proud of that," Snyder said. "We did not get better on offense. It is all about preparing well and playing well. It is no more complex than that.

"If you finish well, it means you played well and prepared well. If you do not, that means you did not prepare well or play well. Half of our game we did not prepare well or play well."

And Snyder didn’t spoil the rod as he described his team’s struggles.

“We did not play well,” Snyder said. “This is all about getting better, and we did not. That’s why I’m upset.”

Conversely, Iowa State couldn’t be happier after its surprise victory at Nebraska, boosting Paul Rhoads to his fifth victory. The post-game celebration in the locker room already has become a YouTube staple among Cyclone fans.

That triumph continues a surprising first season for Rhoads -- his 3-1 nonconference record is the fastest start by a first-year Cyclones coach since George Veenker in 1931.

The Cyclones played Kansas State very competitively in their conference opener. The 24-23 loss was settled on a blocked extra point by Emmanuel Lamur with 32 seconds left.

Rhoads was bracing for the worst, but found his group to be resilient -- even after a 41-36 loss the following week to Kansas that extended their conference losing streak to 11 straight games.

But they rebounded to beat Baylor to snap the streak and notched an impressive 9-7 victory over Nebraska in Lincoln. It was ISU's first victory in Lincoln since 1977 and even more remarkable because the Cyclones did it without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and starting tailback Alexander Robinson.

"I think our confidence has grown and grown every week,” Rhoads said. “Believe it or not, I think it has grown even in the losses. Our goal and expectations have been to improve in everything we’ve done. We’ve done it with the tough losses to Kansas State and Kansas and I think it will improve with this victory.”

Whether we’ll see Kansas State and Iowa State in the Big 12 championship game is still to be determined. Both teams still have a long way to go.

Kansas State will travel to Oklahoma on Saturday, where they have never beaten the Sooners since Bob Stoops arrived. Iowa State will visit suddenly resurgent Texas A&M in another key game in the divisional race.

The North’s jumbled mess at the top makes anything seem possible. And considering the struggles with the rest of the conference, the Cyclones and Wildcats seem as viable as anybody else in this up-for-grabs division at this point of the season.

What we learned in the Big 12, Week 8

October, 25, 2009
10/25/09
7:47
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are some items we learned in the Big 12 in Saturday's games:

1. Mike Sherman hasn’t had a sweeter college victory than the one he had Saturday night against Texas Tech. The Texas A&M coach’s passing game was mocked by Texas Tech coach Mike Leach after the NFL draft earlier this season. Sherman returned the favor by showing Leach something about a new quarterback he couldn't match in Jerrod Johnson. Sherman challenged his team that they would be in a fight and even showed them films of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" upset in 1974 the night before the game to get them ready. His team came out swinging a night later.

2. Nebraska's game of dropsy Saturday afternoon defied all logic. The Cornhuskers had eight turnovers -- including four fumbles inside the Iowa State 6-yard line in a tough 9-7 loss to the Cyclones. With Nebraska forcing no turnovers, the Cornhuskers’ minus-8 turnover margin was the worst in school history. But more amazingly, where was Cody Green? The ballyhooed freshman quarterback didn’t have to start the game, but his addition into the lineup for a possession or two might have provided a jump-start for the Cornhuskers' sputtering offense. Instead, Nebraska's struggles continued a trend where the Cornhuskers have produced only 20 points in their last 14 quarters against BCS opposition. Bo Pelini and Shawn Watson have their work cut out for them -- pronto.

3. The best coaching job in the country Saturday was turned in by Paul Rhoads. Sure, the Cyclones had a few breaks with all of the turnovers. But the new Iowa State coach directed his team to a 9-7 victory over Nebraska without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and leading rusher Alexander Robinson in the lineup. And the Cyclones did it despite a virus that caused many members of the team to get sick in the locker room during halftime. Rhoads is the first ISU coach to win five games in his first season since George Veenker in 1931. And with one more victory, he’ll have the Cyclones headed to their first bowl game since 2005.

4. Kansas State appears to be for real in the North Division. With every team in the division but the Wildcats having at least two conference losses, why can’t Bill Snyder lead his team to the North title? Despite beating Colorado by two touchdowns Saturday afternoon, Snyder was steamed about his team’s critical penalties in the second half that twice took them out of field goal range. But Snyder can’t be mad at his defense, which limited Colorado to only a touchdown and dominated in the trenches from the opening snap in Saturday's game. KSU has a tough finishing schedule but could make it to a bowl even if it has to win seven games to get there. If the Wildcats play like they did Saturday, and the rest of the North's powers like they did, it won't be a big surprise to see the KSU playing in the championship game.

5. Zac Robinson might be playing like the first all-conference quarterback in the 109-year history of the Oklahoma State program. That’s right. Oklahoma State has never had an all-conference quarterback in its history. But Robinson certainly is filling the bill after his record-setting performance against Baylor. Robinson is keeping the OSU program humming as it has kept winning despite Dez Bryant and Kendall Hunter being out of the lineup. He’ll be facing the biggest challenge of the season against Texas ' "Goon Squad" next week, which has knocked out starting quarterbacks in its last three games. But if Robinson can direct the OSU offense in that game like he has so far this season, the Cowboys might have a shot at upsetting the Longhorns.

Midseason review: Iowa State

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
11:49
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Iowa State Cyclones

Record: 4-3, 1-2

The Cyclones were picked to challenge for the North Division cellar under new coach Paul Rhoads. But the plucky team started the season 3-1, giving Rhoads the fastest start by any first-season ISU coach since George Veenker in 1931. His team has gravitated behind a formidable ground attack with new coordinator Tom Herman’s spread offense. Tailback Alexander Robinson has become one of the most valuable players in the league as the Cyclones have surprisingly developed more of a running attack than a passing philosophy so far. Veteran defensive coordinator Wally Burnham has had his mark on his unit, which ranks 42nd in scoring defense and has limited opponents to 17 points or less four times this season. The Cyclones face a punishing finish, but can qualify for a bowl berth by winning two of their last five games. If they can do that, Rhoads would deserve some strong support for coach of the year honors -- if he doesn't already.

Most valuable offensive player, TB Alexander Robinson: Allen Iverson was right about practice. Robinson has been limited in his practice during the past month after tweaking his groin muscle in the Army game on Sept. 26. But he still leads the conference with 737 rushing yards, including four 100-yard games. He’s also been strong as a pass protector in the Cyclones’ spread offense and a versatile performer all season long.

Most valuable defensive player, LB Jesse Smith: The senior linebacker – like most of his teammates – is an undersized defender who won’t fill out the NFL scout’s prototypes for many draftees. But all he does is make plays with 75 tackles, 29 more stops than any teammate. He’s also notched three quarterback hurries, broken up two passes and produced an interception as he’s thrived in Burnham’s defense.

Robinson emerges as key player in ISU's 3-1 start

September, 30, 2009
9/30/09
4:52
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Iowa State’s new passing offense was presumed to be a pass-first, run-later attack where running backs were a kind of endangered species.

Somebody forgot to tell Alexander Robinson about that.

 
  AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
  Iowa State's Alexander Robinson has fueled the Cyclones ground attack.


Robinson has thrived in Tom Herman’s new offensive philosophy, rushing for an average of 113.3 yards per game in a fast early start for the Cyclones.

After four games, Robinson ranks second in the Big 12 in rushing and is on course to become the Cyclones first 1,000-yard back since Stevie Hicks gained 1,062 yards in 2004.

“This spread offense definitely opens some lanes and my offensive line has been doing a great job,” Robinson said. “A lot of my credit goes to them. They’ve just been blocking better as the year goes and I’ve been the beneficiary of that.”

Quietly, the Cyclones have jumped to a 3-1 record in the nonconference part of their schedule. A victory in Saturday’s game against Kansas State at Arrowhead Stadium could be pointing them to their first bowl game since the 2005 season under Dan McCarney.

The biggest reason for that early success has been Robinson.

“Our success running the ball has been constant,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “Guys within the team know who the playmakers are and his success through four games has been what it is. He’s a leader by how he commands himself and how he vocalizes things to the team.”

Herman’s system utilizes a zone-blocking scheme similar to what the Denver Broncos excelled at earlier in the decade. That strategy is ideal for Robinson’s ability as a cutback runner.

“I just kind of scan the defense looking for holes,” Robinson said. “I’m just following the reads that are out there.”

His streak began with 100 yards against Iowa in the Cyclones’ only loss of the season. They rebounded the next week when Robinson rushed for 143 yards boosting the Cyclones to a victory at Kent State that halted a nation-worst 17-game road losing streak.

And he added to the streak last week by rushing for 129 yards and two touchdowns and 49 yards and another touchdown on two receptions to boost the Cyclones’ victory over Army. Their 3-1 start is the best since McCarney’s 2005 team also won three of its first four games.

ISU has already surpassed its total of victories posted during last season’s 2-10 record under Gene Chizik.

“Our start has been good,” Robinson said. “This is something we haven’t felt for awhile, but we know we still haven’t arrived. We have to keep working to get better. But coming in on Sundays after games feels good.”

His three-game streak has made him the first Cyclone since Ennis Haywood started the 2000 with 100 yards in four-straight games.

Robinson strained his groin muscle late in the Army game, but vows to be ready for the Big 12 opener for both teams on Saturday.

Rhoads said that the early perception that new Iowa State offense being heavily pass-oriented was wrong. Robinson’s fast start shows the success that the Cyclones can have both rushing and passing.

"I’ve thought that’s kind of a wrong connotation that gets thrown around -- that the ball is going to get thrown all over the yard and that’s it," said Rhoads, who became ISU’s first first-year coach to start 3-1 since George Veenker in 1931. "If you're going to be successful running this offense, you have to be able to run the ball. And so far, we’ve been able to do that.”

Robinson said he heard reports about Herman’s pass-heavy attack and wasn’t sure what would happen this season. But he’s satisfied with his quick start.

“During the spring, we wanted to prove we could run the ball,” Robinson said. “And maybe, he just grew a little faith in what we could do after getting a chance to watch us play.”

Texas, Oklahoma remain atop Big 12 power rankings

September, 28, 2009
9/28/09
8:39
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here’s a look at the Big 12 rankings for this week:

1. Texas: The Longhorns finally put together a complete game, snuffing out UTEP with a huge effort. Their big victory resulted in their largest margin of victory since the 2005 Big 12 Championship Game, taking apart the Miners with their best offensive and defensive effort of the season. Colt McCoy overcame an early interception to help the Longhorns score on eight of their first nine possessions. The offense gained 639 yards with more than 300 yards rushing and passing in the same game for only the second time in school history. And the defense was even better, limiting UTEP without a touchdown and 53 yards on 51 snaps.

2. Oklahoma: The week off gave the Sooners a chance to rest up for the game against Miami, which lost to Virginia Tech. Sam Bradford left to meet with Dr. James Andrews, providing some hope that he will be able to return by Saturday’s game. But if he’s not ready, there’s not the immediate pressure because of Landry Jones’ recent passing binge. The Sooners' defense will remain pivotal for whoever plays at quarterback. Oklahoma’s defense has notched back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1987 and hasn’t allowed a score in opponents' last 32 possessions.

3. Oklahoma State: Even without Dez Bryant, Kendall Hunter and Perrish Cox, the Cowboys cruised to a big victory over Grambling State. Zac Robinson orchestrated an offensive explosion that produced 587 yards, despite having the starters play for only a half. Jeremy Smith raced for 160 yards in his first substantial action to set a school first-game freshman rushing record. And the Cowboys only passed 23 times in the game. The defensive starters were nearly as good, keeping Grambling without a first down on its first six possessions and only one first down in their first seven.

4. Kansas: The Jayhawks had their toughest game of the nonconference schedule, but their best building block with the strong late finish that propelled them past Southern Mississippi. The offense overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes to still pile up 35 points. Todd Reesing passed for 331 yards and stretched his touchdown pass streak to a nation-best 22 games. The Jayhawks played without leading rusher Jake Sharp, but backup Toben Opurum provided 109 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. Wide receiver Kerry Meier had a career day with 141 yards and two TD grabs. But the defense was the biggest story as it turned away Southern Mississippi without a score on four-straight fourth-quarter possessions to salt away the victory. It’s a defensive performance for the Jayhawks to build on heading into Big 12 play.

5. Nebraska: Bouncing back from their loss at Virginia Tech, the Cornhuskers had no hangover against Louisiana-Lafayette. Nebraska scored 27 points in the first 19 minutes of the game, scoring on their first five possessions. Zac Lee rebounded from last week’s struggles to complete 15 of 18 passes for 238 yards. And the Nebraska defense limited Louisiana-Lafayette to 222 yards, forcing three turnovers and even getting a touchdown on Larry Asante’s 74-yard pass interception return. It was a good victory that should build some momentum heading into their pivotal early-season showdown at Missouri next week.

6. Missouri: The Tigers’ national television performance at Nevada punctuated the Tigers’ record 14th-straight nonconference victory. Blaine Gabbert threw for a career-high 414 passing yards and had five passes of at least 30 yards. Danario Alexander is emerging as one of the Big 12’s top deep threats with a career-high 170 receiving yards. The running game struggled a little, but Gabbert picked them up. And the defense overcame allowing 218 rushing yards to produce two interceptions against Nevada. Still the Tigers have room for much defensive improvement heading into the Nebraska game.

7. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are kicking themselves for losing at Houston. The Red Raiders appeared to have taken control when their running game starting kicking in late in the first half. Baron Batch rushed for a career-best 114 rushing yards as they repeatedly gashed the smaller Houston defense. But they got away from that strategy and inexplicably started throwing the ball when they could have killed the clock on the ground. The defense played well before wearing down in the cauldron of heat and humidity at Robertson Stadium. The best example could be seen by the fact that four Texas Tech defenders had double-figure totals in tackles, and two others had nine and eight stops. That’s the best indication of how tough it was to withstand Houston’s 94-play onslaught.

8. Baylor: It was fun while it lasted. Robert Griffin gave the Bears hope of making their first bowl trip since 1994. But his season-ending knee injury could be too much for Art Briles’ team to overcome. The Bears are coming off a landmark performance in Griffin’s last game this season, rolling for a 68-13 victory over Northwestern State. Jarred Salubi rushed for 137 yards as he started in place of Jay Finley as the Bears had a balanced offensive attack. And the defense played well after allowing a touchdown on the opening drive, yielding only two field goals during the rest of the game as they limited the Demons to 248 yards.

9. Texas A&M: We’ll find out about the Aggies soon enough -- like Saturday in Arlington against Arkansas. The Aggies rank among the top seven teams nationally in rushing, passing, total offense and scoring. For good measure, they also rank in the top 10 nationally in sacks, tackles for loss, net punting and pass efficiency. A&M’s 56-19 beatdown of UAB featured Jerrod Johnson accounting for six touchdowns -- three TD runs and three passes -- as they didn’t seem to miss Jeff Fuller very much. Most impressively, the Aggies converted 14 of 17 third downs as they limited UAB to a season-low 74 passing yards and thoroughly dominated play.

10. Iowa State: Very quietly, Paul Rhoads has boosted his team to a 3-1 start, which might not make a bowl trip such a far-fetched scenario for the Cyclones. It's the best start for an Iowa State coach since George Veenker in 1931, who started 5-1. Alexander Robinson has keyed the recent offensive spurt with three-straight 100-yard rushing games and also added a pair of touchdown grabs against Army. The Cyclones are tied for the national lead after allowing only two sacks in their first four games and also rank fifth in net punting with Mike Brandtner. The defense came up big against Army, limiting the Black Knights to a season-low 186 rushing yards. This week's "Farmageddon" against Kansas State at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City will be huge in determining what team will be able to avoid the Big 12 North cellar.

11. Kansas State: Brandon Banks kick-started the Wildcats' big victory over Tennessee Tech, scoring a pair of touchdowns on kickoff returns. His recent struggles as a deep receiver appear to be over after he averaged 30 yards a catch. Sure, it was an FCS opponent. But rushing for 296 yards -- best for Kansas State since 2005 -- had to build confidence for the running game. Carson Coffman wasn’t asked to do too much and he was fine. And the defense came up big by limiting Tennessee Tech to minus-19 yards rushing and 107 yards of total offense -- the best outing by a KSU defense since 2000. But the Iowa State game will determine how far the Wildcats still have to go.

12. Colorado: The Buffaloes got the week off before a tough trip to West Virginia, which still remembers the Mountaineers' tough loss in Boulder last season. Rodney Stewart was the key in that triumph with a career-best 166 yards. He likely will be called on again against a tougher West Virginia run defense that ranks No. 14 nationally. Defensive improvement will be key this week for the Buffaloes as they gear up for a challenging West Virginia team led by multi-purpose quarterback Jarrett Brown and Jock Sanders, who ranks third nationally in receptions per game.

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