AMES, Iowa —
It was supposed to be the perfect setup for Iowa State.
The Cyclones would work out their kinks in the opener against FCS school Northern Iowa. Then, they'd use the ensuing bye week as added preparation for the rival Iowa Hawkeyes - who they'd likely be favored to beat for the first time in recent memory.
After losing to the Panthers 28-20 last weekend, nothing seems assured for Iowa State anymore.
Northern Iowa exposed issues on both sides of the ball for the inexperienced Cyclones, who showed that those who picked them to finish ninth in the Big 12 might end up being right.
At least Iowa State has an extra week to fix what went wrong before hosting Iowa on Sept. 14.
"I think it's a great thing this time. You know, when the schedule came out you wondered if that would be good,'' Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said about having such an early bye week. "But sometimes the good Lord blesses you in unknown ways.''
The Cyclones' defense certainly needs more practice time after a lackluster showing against Northern Iowa. Iowa State had trouble tackling and stopping the Panthers on third downs, and they never had an answer for running back David Johnson.
Northern Iowa's first three drives went for 69, 78 and 82 yards - and each finished in the end zone. As a result, Iowa State was behind by 14 points midway through the second quarter.
Johnson finished with a staggering 199 yards rushing and four TDs, including a pair of scoring catches.
Quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen completed 75 percent of his passes without a turnover, and the Panthers converted five of their 10 chances on third down.
"Missed alignments. Missed tackles. Basically, that's it,'' Burnham said. "We didn't play with a lot of enthusiasm, like we should have for an opening game. But technically, we didn't get lined up a few times and it really hurt us. Then we had a chance to make some stops on third down, and we had missed tackles.''
And when the Cyclones finally strung together a number of stops, their offense couldn't convert.
Quarterback Sam Richardson started the year off strong, with 242 yards passing and two TDs along with a team-high 74 yards rushing. But although Richardson was by far the most productive player for the Cyclones in the opener, they'll likely need even more out of him in the weeks ahead.
Iowa State was forced to settle for a pair of field goals from inside Northern Iowa's 20-yard line in the third quarter - when a touchdown on either drive likely would have turned the game around for the Cyclones.
"I thought Sam played well. But I didn't see Sam go win the football game for us,'' Cyclones offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. "For us to reach the goals that we have, he's got to be able to carry us through some of those low points in a drive.''
Iowa State's offensive line didn't help, though.
Richardson was sacked six times, and he sprained his right ankle late in the game - though Messingham said Wednesday that he'll be back for Iowa.
The line didn't do much for the running backs, either, as four of them combined to gain just 94 yards on 31 tries.
"It's a little two-fold. One, we didn't obviously block as well up front as we need to. Two, from a coaching standpoint, getting us in the best runs that we could be in (was an issue),'' Messingham said.
Granted, Northern Iowa is traditionally a strong FCS program that beat Iowa State in 2007 and nearly did it again in 2011. As one of eight FBS teams to lose to an FCS opponent, the Cyclones also aren't the only program smarting after an upset.
But Iowa State has put itself in a really tough spot after just one week.
To even qualify for a bowl game, the Cyclones would theoretically need to sweep the Hawkeyes and Tulsa in non-conference plays and then win four Big 12 games - after winning just three in each of the past four seasons.