To begin the week, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads stood behind a podium and delivered the news conference of the year so far in the Big 12.
Rhoads revealed that on top of having a new starting quarterback in Joel Lanning, the Cyclones would have a new offensive playcaller moving forward, too. Mark Mangino was out, a move so stunning that many of the players learned of it by reading the Twitter timelines of Iowa State’s beat reporters.
And so, after a pair of dramatic personnel changes, the Cyclones — and maybe the Rhoads era at Iowa State — have seemingly arrived at a crossroads heading into Saturday night’s meeting with Texas.
Since ending the 2012 season with a trip to the Liberty Bowl, the Cyclones have a record of just 7-24. They haven’t defeated a Big 12 opponent not named Kansas in two years. And since knocking off second-ranked Oklahoma State in a landmark overtime victory in 2011, they have gone just 1-16 against ranked foes.
The Longhorns aren’t ranked. But a win over Texas would give Iowa State the validation it so desperately needs while keeping its long-shot bowl hopes flickering.
“The deeper you get into the season and the outcomes of wins and losses affect the overall record, they affect postseason, and so forth, that’s fair to say,” said Rhoads, when asked if his team had a greater sense of urgency to win after starting 2-5.
That should give the Cyclones plenty of motivation to try to begin salvaging their season this weekend in Ames. So should facing the Longhorns, who have edged out Iowa State in dramatic fashion the previous two years.
Two seasons ago in Jack Trice Stadium, a controversial no-fumble call allowed Texas to plunge ahead with the game-winning touchdown to defeat the Cyclones in the final seconds, 31-30. The deflating loss ignited a seven-game losing streak.
Last year, Iowa State had Texas on the ropes again. But the Longhorns drove down the field in the final 28 seconds to kick a field goal to win, 48-45, triggering a six-game losing streak.
“We’re not necessarily longing to play Texas, but it does bother us that we’ve let things slip out of our hands the last two years,” said senior wideout Quenton Bundrage. “You can say it came down to a call or two, but you can also say we didn’t make a play here or there. So we’re ready for this game.”
Unlike the previous two seasons when a loss to Texas sent the Cyclones into a tailspin, they’re hoping a win over the Longhorns can reverse the trend of a season that so far has been disappointing. With 15 upperclassmen starters on opening weekend, the Cyclones had high hopes of getting back to a bowl. But early defeats to Iowa and Toledo quickly made that an uphill climb. After dropping three in a row in Big 12 play, the Cyclones now must win four of their remaining five games, which include road trips to Oklahoma, Kansas State and West Virginia, as well as a home bout with Oklahoma State.
“Our backs are against the wall,” said junior guard Daniel Burton. “But getting to a bowl is still the goal. Obviously to get to a bowl game, we have to start winning games and that starts Saturday.”
Rhoads is hoping that the changes he made this week will at least give the Cyclones a chance.
A source told ESPN.com earlier in the week that the rift between Rhoads and Mangino had been building for weeks. The Des Moines Register reported that a point of contention was Rhoads wanting Mangino to rush the ball more with breakout redshirt freshman running back Mike Warren, who is second in the league in rushing. With Todd Sturdy now calling plays, all signs point to the Cyclones featuring Warren even more.
Sturdy also will have a new quarterback behind center in Lanning, who quietly was superb last weekend at Baylor. After replacing Sam B. Richardson, Lanning in the second half completed 11 of 15 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns, as the Cyclones made the contest moderately interesting before falling 45-27.
“The confidence level that’s rising within our football team, Joel starting at quarterback and the energy that he helped create this past Saturday was a positive thing,” Rhoads said. “He performed at a high level against a good football team. Now we have to capitalize on that momentum.”
At the end of last season, Rhoads said that his “plan [was] to win in 2015” and that even though he had a great relationship with athletic director Jamie Pollard, “that doesn't mean he'll keep me if I keep losing.”
Iowa State is running out of opportunities to win. And on the heels of two massive changes, Rhoads — and the Cyclones — need a victory at this crossroads. Now more than ever.