AMES, Iowa — Things have gotten so bleak for Iowa State that a three-touchdown defeat is seen as progress.
Still, there were signs in a 41-20 road loss at TCU that the winless Cyclones (0-3) are indeed improving.
Quarterback Joel Lanning helped jump-start the rushing game, running back Mike Warren ran for nearly 100 yards and Iowa State’s special teams looked as strong as they have all season.
It was clear from the opener, a 25-20 loss to Northern Iowa of the FCS, that 2016 would be a rebuilding year. So as lopsided as the final score was in Fort Worth last weekend, the Cyclones found some positives to build on for Saturday’s nonconference finale against San Jose State (1-2).
“We’re continuing to grow and get better and I think you saw that last week,” first-year Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said.
Lanning retained his starting spot despite a terrible performance two weeks ago, throwing for just 86 yards as the Cyclones were throttled by Iowa 42-3.
That doesn’t mean Lanning is set to take all the snaps this season.
Sophomore Jacob Park, the more accomplished passer of the two, played extensively against the Horned Frogs and threw for 90 yards on 15 attempts.
Lanning is much more of a dual threat though, and the Cyclones were able to use that to their advantage. Lanning rushed for two TDs, including an 8-yarder in which he broke tackles from nearly half of TCU’s defense to score.
Campbell said the quarterback rotation moving forward will be based on practice performances, game-day situations and even feel on occasion.
“I still think that’s an open-ended question,” Campbell said of this weekend’s plans for Lanning and Park. “We’ll continue to compete at that position. But I really trust those guys to play.”
Warren’s inability to get untracked, an issue caused largely by a leaky offensive line, had been Iowa State’s biggest problem. But the Cyclones finally committed to getting Warren more involved against the Horned Frogs, and it paid off.
Warren ran for 95 yards on 23 carries after gaining just 58 yards in the first two weeks combined.
“You’re not going to get where you want in a day, and we all realize that it’s going to take a little more each time to get where we want to go,” he said.
Iowa State’s special teams had their moments last week as well after some early stumbles against Northern Iowa and Iowa.
Cole Netten hit two short field goals, true freshman Kene Nwangwu had 99 yards on just three kickoff returns and Colin Downing averaged 44 yards on eight punts.
Of course, none of them led to a win — or even a relatively close game.
But for a program just three games into a rebuild that could easily take three years or more, signs of progress are encouraging.
“I think we kind of put things together a little bit more than we have in the first two games. We were going quick and we had success running the ball, and that’s what we need to do to be successful,” Lanning said. “We made some baby steps, and it was good for us.”