AMES, Iowa — Iowa State’s offense is kicking into gear and coach Paul Rhoads figures it all starts up front.
Unlike last season, when injuries forced changes in the offensive line almost weekly, this year’s group has remained generally intact. And it’s beginning to show.
The Cyclones (2-5, 0-4 Big 12) are coming off their two most productive games of the season as they head into Saturday’s home game against No.
19 Oklahoma. That’s critical because Iowa State will have to keep pace with some potent offenses as the season winds down, including the Sooners (5-2, 2-2), No. 10 TCU and No. 20 West Virginia.
“The practice continuity [for linemen] is awfully important,” Rhoads said. “That was the biggest piece we’ve talked about in house and that we’ve seen as our offense has played better. The same five guys have been practicing together.”
That, in turn, has helped Sam Richardson become a better quarterback.
Richardson has produced the top two completion totals in school history in the past two games — 37 in a 37-30 victory against Toledo and 36 in a 48-45 loss at Texas.
He threw for 696 yards and six touchdowns in those games with only two interceptions. Richardson had seven TD passes in the first five games.
“Sam knows what he’s working with. Sam knows he’s being protected,” Rhoads said. “He knows the checks are being made and a confident quarterback with that in mind is important to your offense.”
First-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino noticed from last season’s films that Richardson spent more time watching the pass rush than his receivers. This year, Rhoads said, he’s keeping his eyes down the field while he works through his progressions.
“He’s navigating that pressure by feel, like he should … and then running when he has to as opposed to just taking off and running because he wants to,” Rhoads said.
Better line play also has helped improve what had been a woeful running game. The Cyclones rushed for a season-high 179 yards against Texas, including 110 by tailback Aaron Wimberly, the first 100-yard game by an ISU back in more than a year.
— Tom Farniok, Iowa State center
“It makes it easier when you know the guy you’re next to,” center Tom Farniok said. “Everyone’s got little things that are just a little different. That feel for each other — when you have a consistent core of guys, it’s easier to develop that.”
Iowa State’s receivers, a group that includes three sophomores and two freshmen, also are maturing. They’re doing a better job getting open and dropping fewer balls.
Sophomore D’Vario Montgomery has 18 catches in the past two games after totaling only three receptions in the first five. Freshman Allen Lazard had 16 receptions against Toledo and Texas.
Plus, the Cyclones are doing a better job utilizing athletic tight end E.J. Bibbs, who has caught 21 passes and scored five touchdowns in the past three games.
“All of us understand where we’re supposed to be and how fast we’re supposed to get there and what we need to do to get there,” Montgomery said. “I would say communication between all of us is very good.”
The offense should be helped this week by the return of dynamic receiver Jarvis West, who has been slowed much of the season by a foot injury. During his career, West has caught five touchdown passes, thrown a TD pass, run for a touchdown and scored on punt and kickoff returns.
Rhoads said West practiced at full speed on Sunday.
“Much different than he was going into the Texas game and that whole week of preparation,” Rhoads said. “Nothing holding him back.”