Iowa State hoped to have answered all of its questions headed into Big 12 play, but the Cyclones are about to find out if they're still where many thought they would be heading into the season: Big 12 championship contenders.
The Cyclones take on the Baylor Bears Saturday at 2:30 p.m. with television coverage on ESPN. It's the Cyclones' first road test of the year and the biggest test yet for both sides of the ball.
Iowa State has scored 20 points in regulation once in three regular-season games, and coach Matt Campbell said the Cyclones need to be consistent on both ends to have a chance in Big 12 play.
"We've got to continue to get better in a lot of areas," Campbell said. "Defensively, I think we continue to evolve, which is positive. We've gotta continue to harp on situational football.
I think on the offensive side, just continuing to grow. It's so young."
One area the Cyclones have markedly improved in over the past two games is the offensive line. After struggling mightily against FCS Northern Iowa in the season's first week, Iowa State has allowed only one sack over the past 120 minutes of football. Campbell said Tuesday it was likely this was the first time the line has strung two straight good games together.
The past two performances have come without starting center Colin Newell, who has been out since sustaining an MCL injury in the fourth quarter of the Northern Iowa game. Newell is still questionable to return this week, Campbell said.
Newell practiced Monday for the first time since the injury. If he can't go, then it will once again be senior Collin Olson at center with redshirt freshman Trevor Downing at left guard.
Downing said his hard spring in freshmen year prepared him for his starts this season.
"That first spring was a big shock," Downing said.
The Bears have plenty of offensive firepower this season led by returning quarterback Charlie Brewer. In his third year under Baylor coach Matt Rhule, Brewer has thrown seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his three starts this year. Rhule's teams have been tough and with an edge as he's grown the Baylor program — an edge which resulted in the Cyclones and Bears getting into an on-field fight in the third quarter of last year's game.
The Cyclones were able to hang on and win by two touchdowns despite Brewer putting the Bears in scoring positions.
"He gave his team every opportunity to go win that football game," Campbell said. "It's the ability to know where to go with the football with great confidence."
The Iowa State defense knows about Brewer's ability, too. Defensive end JaQuan Bailey, who is still 0.5 sacks away from setting the Iowa State record for most sacks in school history, isn't worried about the sack numbers.
But he did say he was worried about Brewer — particularly his ability to make things happen outside of the pocket.
"He's not just one of the best in our conference, but in the nation," Bailey said.
Iowa State's defense has struggled with mobile quarterbacks all season long — particularly last week against Louisiana-Monroe, where Caleb Evans ran for 70-plus yards. The Cyclones even had trouble with pocket-passer Nate Stanley when they played the Hawkeyes in their only loss of non-conference play.
In the Big 12, mobile quarterbacks are at nearly every school — and the defense knows it's an area where it can make big improvements.
The Cyclones hung on last year at home. But in hot conditions in a hostile road environment, Iowa State will have to get its situational football spot on to get off to a positive start in conference play.