We are somehow already a quarter of the way through the college football regular season as most teams wrap up their non-conference schedules. We’ve seen some instant classic games, some early-season surprises, and are just now starting to get a feel for how good (or bad) our favorite teams are this year.
Seeing as these are student-athletes, I think it’s fair to treat them as such—with grades. And seeing as I’m a recent college graduate with no real qualifications to judge a football team, I think it’s only fair that I hand out these grades. So, step into Mr. Gookin’s office for your first quarter report card, Cyclones.
Jacob Park is the popular kid who is close to being a straight-A student, but a missed assignment or bad test here or there keeps him floating around a B+ to A- most of the time. The occasional bad assignment doesn’t usually hurt his grade too much because you can tell he spends time studying in class and at home, so you can count on him to be a great student all year.
It’s good to have Jacob Park back. With 935 yards and eight touchdowns in just three games, Park is not only over halfway to surpassing last year’s totals, but he’s on pace to break about every single single-season quarterback school record in the book. The expectation was for him to have a better handle of the playbook and a renewed focus and there’s no question he’s met both of those expectations. However, he has a tendency to over-throw his receivers at times and will occasionally stare down his reads. A few missed assignments to start the season but so far, Park has been everything the Cyclones wanted in a QB.
First Quarter Grade: B+
The running back position is the quiet kid in the science group project that no one really had an opinion about… until he turned out to be a genius and is helping everyone complete their part of the project. He doesn’t say much outside of class, but knows exactly what he’s doing when your team can’t figure out how to solve a problem or just needs help completing tasks no one else wants to do. He’s the kid who everyone knew was smart but didn’t realize was the missing piece to a successful team.
We knew we had two very capable backs in David Montgomery and Mike Warren, but I don’t think any of us expected this. Montgomery is a bonafide First Team All-Big 12 running back. He leads the nation in broken tackles… by a lot. He’s ranked as the most elusive back in college football by Pro Football Focus. Warren has struggled a bit to start the season but finally started looking like himself again against Akron. The Cyclones will want to improve on their 148.3 yard per game average through three games, but that 4.6 yards per carry is a great sign going forward.
First Quarter Grade: A
The receiving position is the really smart kid in class who aces all of his tests but just doesn’t do the daily homework assignments sometimes. Sure, he can get a perfect score on the test everyone is stressing about, but 60% of the class grade is daily assignments—and he hasn’t turned in a lot of them.
Is this the most over-hyped group in Iowa State football history, or the most underachieving? I’m willing to bet the answer is somewhere in the middle, but it’s hard not to be critical when NFL-caliber receivers drop uncontested passes. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen some unbelievable plays by this group—namely Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler—but with the “dropped passes” ticker at nearly a dozen only three games into the season, there’s some tough love to be dealt if we want this student back on track.
First Quarter Grade: D+
The offensive line is the student who doesn’t naturally have the brains, but works harder than everyone else to get good grades. Whether it’s studying long into the night, doing extra credit when one assignment didn’t go well or just working with the teacher after class, he’s a teacher favorite even though he’ll never get into Harvard.
There’s no doubt this line is far from perfect. The running game has been dominant at times, thanks in large part to seniors Jake Campos and Robby Garcia on the left side. The younger and less-experienced right side… there’s plenty of room for improvement. But the expectation coming into the season was to be able to run the ball effectively and protect the quarterback. After 11 sacks through three games last season, the line has only allowed one in the first three games this season. Tom Manning is maybe the most valuable assistant Iowa State has right now.
First Quarter Grade: A-
The defensive line is the foreign exchange student who is obviously smarter than everybody else from better schooling overseas, but the english barrier and adapting to a new culture is the only thing holding him back.
The Iowa State Cyclones currently lead the Big 12 in sacks (9). They’re 30th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (107). Only seven teams in the nation have allowed less rushing touchdowns (1). These are all things that exactly zero Cyclone fans expected through the first quarter of the season. JUCO guys like Ray Lima, Matt Leo and Kamilo Tongamoa are still getting comfortable in the system, but along with the developing J.D. Waggoner and Vernell Trent, the group is looking like more of a strength and less of a concern. On expectations alone, this unit passes with flying colors.
First Quarter Grade: B+
The linebacking corps is the kid who excels in math and science classes but really struggles with reading and English. Don’t get me wrong, the kid works hard and generally gets good grades, but there are just a few areas he may never be perfect.
As mentioned with the defensive line, the rush defense has been a surprise. Especially going against run-first teams like Iowa, Akron and even Northern Iowa, there’s reason to believe this front-seven is no joke. In fact, all three starting linebackers crack the top-4 in tackles on the team and more than half of the team’s tackles for loss come from the linebacking corps. But when it comes to outside contain and pass coverage, there’s work to be done. Improving reads and just getting more snaps will keep this unit on track to steady improvement after already exceeding expectations.
First Quarter Grade: B-
The secondary is the kid on Honors Society that definitely doesn’t deserve it. His attendance isn’t great, he does fine in most classes but spaces out far too often, but still manages to get second chances because teachers see his potential and he promises to do better.
The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in interceptions (5), but don’t let that number fool you. Ranking 111th in passing yards allowed, the secondary has some ‘splainin’ to do. A Kamari Cotton-Moya injury certain didn’t make things easier against Akron, but there was some dreadful coverage in the secondary that KCM wouldn’t have changed. A missed assignment here or there is to be expected, but for a unit that was considered the strength of the defense, wide open receivers on 3rd down should not be an issue drive after drive in all three games.
First Quarter Grade: D-
Special Teams is your Grade A nerdy brainiac. Smart in every subject and the rare mistake is met with surprise instead of anger. So smart, he’s almost boring.
Only nine of Iowa State’s 21 kickoffs have been returned this season—none of them made it to their own 30-yard line. Only three of Iowa State’s 13 punts have been returned this season—for a total of 11 yards. Four punts have gone 50+ yards and six of them downed inside the opponents 20. Outside of one missed field goal, Iowa State’s special teams has been extremely solid, although seems to lack a game-changing return man a la Kene Nwangwu.
First Quarter Grade: B
The Final Report
So far, your Cyclones are doing pretty well. There have been some pleasant surprises that have blown expectations out of the water, but the few disappointments are hard to swallow. Then again, it was just a year ago that the Cyclones were failing miserably in nearly every category, even by Iowa State standards.
The Cyclones’ first quarter GPA is 2.75—right in the lower B range. This is territory the Cyclones aren’t used to being in, putting them in the top-half of college football teams with the potential to push even higher in the second, third and fourth quarters of the season.
Check back in mid-October for the first semester report card as the Cyclones aim to return to a bowl for the first time since 2012.