MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It was apparent the wheels were turning inside the mind of Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads when he sat down to address the press following the Cyclones’ 31-17 loss to Tulsa in the 54th AutoZone Liberty Bowl Monday.
He was trying to articulate what exactly went wrong in the loss, but it seemed evident his thought process was also two weeks into the future when Iowa State (6-7) returns to the weight room and continues its physical development.
Rhoads was thinking ahead because his team was defeated soundly in the type of game he wants his Cyclones to play — fast and physical.
The Golden Hurricane dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, averaging better than five yards a carry while gaining 317 yards. Defensively, Tulsa flushed ISU quarterbacks Sam Richardson and Steele Jantz out of the pocket relentlessly with its smaller but quicker defensive linemen.
“Games are often won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and we did not play a physical enough brand of football,” Rhoads said in his postgame press conference. “Things always start on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”
Moving forward from the game, Rhoads feels his program is building in the right direction despite a bowl game loss for the second consecutive season.
“Tonight wasn’t a success,” he said. “We lost a football game. But it is Dec. 31 and we’re here talking football and playing football, and a lot of folks aren’t. When you get to the postseason in college football, you have a successful season.
“Is successful defined as 6-7? No.
“Is what we have accomplished in four years when you look at where our program was and look at the history of Iowa State football ... this is another successful season that we have to build on.”
A number one priority for the Cyclones will be improving their offensive production. While the offense had some big games during the 2013 season, it was often maddingly inconsistent.
Against Tulsa, with an ailing Sam Richardson (flu) struggling after a hot start, Iowa State had 10 drives of four plays or less, nine of them after it took a 17-7 lead.
The Cyclones had only five first downs in the final three quarters and none in the third quarter when the game was still within reach.
“If you look at a 13-game season and you are searching to find what identity (of the offense) is,” Rhoads said, “... identity and success are defined by moving the sticks and scoring points, and we didn’t do it enough (Monday) and overall we haven’t done enough of that.”
Iowa State will have to replace several key cogs following graduation, including four seniors — Jeremy Reeves, Josh Lenz, Jake Knott and A.J. Knott — who were part of Rhoads’ first recruiting class after being hired. All four played as true freshmen.
“This group is special,” Rhoads said. “It is our first recruiting class that we brought in as a staff.
“I have a number of them. I have to check to see how many true seniors we have like Jake, A.J. and Josh that are going out this season, and we have the guys who we inherited. They quickly became ours and we embraced that and wanted to give them a very fulfilling experience, and I think we accomplished that.”
Klein’s face illustrated how difficult the Liberty Bowl loss was on the seniors.
“It didn’t end how I wanted it to,” Klein said. “It’s hard to lose, and nobody wants to lose. But things don’t always work out how you want them to.”
If there is any sign more evident that the Cyclones are moving in the right direction, other than three bowl games in four years under Rhoads, it’s the fact that ISU did not have to use a single true freshman during the 2013 season.
Rhoads said the Liberty Bowl loss won’t slow down that building process.
“It is not going to ruin our offseason program,” Rhoads said. “You redirect where the motivation is. In 2010 (after a win in the Insight Bowl), we launched into our offseason. In 2012, we kicked them in the butt as we got started.
“As a coach you find the motivation, the inspiration, whatever it is.”