EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the 22nd in a series of previews on West Virginia and Marshall football opponents.
Checking them out
Paul Rhoads is a pretty likeable guy - a bit laid back off the field and humorous to a fault. West Virginia fans find nothing likeable or funny about Rhoads, though. He was the defensive coordinator at Pitt who orchestrated that win over the Mountaineers in December of 2007, shutting down WVU's offense and ruining a chance to play for the national championship.
It's odd, then, to see Rhoads now as the head coach at Iowa State, where defense is generally an afterthought. But that's how he's building the Cyclones.
How's that working out? Well, with mixed results. Iowa State finished next-to-last in scoring in the Big 12 last season, but also was just fourth from the bottom in scoring defense. But Iowa State did manage to pull off perhaps the most significant upset of the 2011 season with an overtime win against Oklahoma State, and Rhoads' job is safe despite a 6-7 record in his third season.
In a league built around high-powered offenses, Rhoads is taking the more traditional approach and trying to win with defense and a running game and decent special teams and few mistakes. This year will be no different.
Even with a defensive-minded attitude, the Cyclones have had their problems, ranking among the worst teams in the country at getting to the quarterback (No. 115 in sacks last season). That might not change this year with only one starter back on the defensive line, but the linebackers are great, led by Big 12 co-defensive player of the year A.J. Klein and All-Big 12 Jake Knott. The secondary ranked third in the Big 12 in pass defense last year even without a pass rush, but it will be another tough task after losing cornerback Leonard Johnson.
The offense should be as good as it's been under Rhoads, but that's still a long way from being explosive. Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett will battle for the quarterback spot again, and both can run around and make plays. The running backs are deep, as are the receivers, and the offensive line should be workmanlike. Again, nothing flashy, but perhaps it can chew up some clock and keep opposing offenses off the field.
In the Big East, West Virginia got used to playing regular-season games on rather oddball days, in recent seasons having lined up on every day of the week save for a Monday. In its first season in the Big 12, this is as close to a non-traditional date as they come. And it's not that odd given that it's the day after Thanksgiving . . . The game with West Virginia is Iowa State's last of the season. The Cyclones and Texas Tech are the only Big 12 teams that don't play on Dec. 1.