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Iowa State and Iowa aren’t far apart, geographically or football-wise

Mike Hlas – CR Gazette –

Sports has its constants.

Like cheaters winning the Tour de France. And grown men pushing children out of their way to pursue foul balls at big-league baseball games. And Chris Berman bellowing to NFL highlights as if a mongoose were gnawing on his arm.

But most things in sports are as fluid as a waterfall. For instance, did you realize Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State have all had losing football seasons within the last five years?

Michigan, seemingly impervious to failure for so long, was 3-9 in 2008 and 5-7 in 2009. Things change, then change again.

They change around here, too. From 2008 through 2010, Iowa State was outscored by a total of 87-15 in its three losses to Iowa. But here we are just two years later, and the difference between the two teams seems as thin as an iPad going into their game against each other Saturday.

For one thing, ISU beat Iowa in a three-overtime thrill ride last year. For another, the Cyclones finished the season in the exact same way Iowa did, losing a Dec. 30 bowl the rest of the nation ignored.

The Hawkeyes were 7-6 last year, the Cyclones 6-7. Had the two teams swapped schedules, they probably would have swapped records as well.

At season’s end, the mighty Sagarin determined Iowa State had played the nation’s second-toughest schedule. The Cyclones’ final three regular-season foes were Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Kansas State.

Not including games those three played against each other, their combined record was 29-4. One of those defeats, of course, was Oklahoma State’s lone loss of the year. At Iowa State.

It can sometimes be hard to tell in the top-heavy Big 12, but Iowa State has made and continues to make progress.

The Cyclones have upgraded their roster’s talent and depth. Like Iowa, they are putting finishing touches on new football facilities. They have done a nice job enhancing Jack Trice Stadium, and are selling tickets in numbers never before reached there.

It only helps that the Big 12 has stabilized, and is about to ink blockbuster media rights deals with ESPN and Fox.

Last Saturday, ISU took care of business against a capable opponent when it beat Tulsa, 38-23. That beats the heck out of starting with a home loss to Kent State, which the Cyclones did under Gene Chizik just five years ago.

I assume acceptance of Iowa State’s improvement under Paul Rhoads has taken place across Hawkeyeland. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz sure knows what’s going on in Ames.

“The biggest thing is they have stuck to their plan, from my vantage point,” Ferentz said.

“They have a pretty good idea of what they want to be offensively, defensively, special teams, and it has not changed a lot, I don’t think, since (Rhoads) has been there. Other than they are playing better.

“Their players are better, they are more experienced, and they are experienced in their system.”

Off the field, Rhoads has certainly built an identity. His fiery postgame comments to his teams after big victories first went viral after the toppling of Nebraska in Lincoln three years ago, and have given ISU football an image beyond central Iowa.

It may be regarded as Iowa corn by Hawkeye fans, but it’s struck a fond chord elsewhere.

Especially in the glow of that win over Oklahoma State last year, Iowa State was viewed as The Little Team That Could, with a coach who shows the kind of raw and joyful emotion everyone wants to feel about something, sometime.

Maybe the Hawkeyes will knock their state-rivals down a peg on Saturday. But would anyone be truly shocked if they don’t?

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