One particular offseason coaching move went woefully underreported and underanalyzed when it happened. On Feb. 17, defensive coordinator Wally Burnham left South Florida to take the same job at Iowa State.
People don't typically leave Tampa for an equal or lesser job in Ames, Iowa, but at Iowa State, Burnham would have a chance to coach alongside his son, Shane. To work with his son, the elder Burnham, who was one of the few coaches to solve Rich Rodriguez's West Virginia spread, had to take on the Herculean task of turning around a defense that allowed 35.8 points a game in 2008.
Consider the Cyclones turned around. Saturday, Burnham's defense forced a Nebraska school-record eight turnovers as Iowa State shocked the Cornhuskers, 9-7. The team that ranked 111th out of 120 FBS teams in scoring defense has allowed an average of 19.8 points, and it keeps getting better.
Meanwhile, things are only getting worse in Lincoln, where the 302nd consecutive sellout crowd just watched a second consecutive home loss. The Blackshirts did their jobs, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh tried to single-handedly keep Nebraska in the game with two blocked kicks, but Nebraska's offense couldn't do anything against a defense coached so ably by Burnham and Cyclones head coach Paul Rhoads.
Zac Lee threw three interceptions, and the Cornhuskers lost five fumbles. Nebraska moved up and down the field but couldn't hold on to the ball long enough to tote it into the end zone. The Huskers' first play from scrimmage was an omen; seven seconds in, I-back Roy Helu Jr. lost a fumble. That gaffe led to a 52-yard Grant Mahoney field goal.
In the second quarter, Lee led the Huskers into the red zone before David Sims grabbed an interception off a freaky carom that involved Huskers tight end Mike McNeill, Cyclones defensive back James Smith and Helu. That pick set up a 47-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Jerome Tiller to Jake Williams.
As well as Iowa State's defense played, the Cyclones also needed luck to win while being outgained 355-231. That luck struck in the second quarter when Nebraska receiver Niles Paul basically dropped the ball near the end of what would have been a 73-yard touchdown catch. The ball bounced into the end zone, where Iowa State's Smith jumped on it.
Lee won the open quarterback competition over Cody Green this week, but it probably wouldn't have mattered who played under center. Burnham's Cyclones flew around and made plays. They stripped the Huskers, and the offense -- playing without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud (hand) and Big 12 rushing leader Alexander Robinson (groin) -- hogged the ball long enough to give the defense time to rest up to force the next fumble.
The shocker leaves us with some interesting questions. First, can Nebraska recover? The Huskers play championship-level defense, but they'll have to fix their ball-security issues. With a head-to-head win against Missouri already in hand, Nebraska still can win the Big 12 North if it can solve some problems.
Second, which came first at Iowa State? The Chizik or the Rhoads? Does Rhoads deserve all the credit for matching Gene Chizik's two-year win total in eight games, or was the first-year Auburn coach telling the truth when he said he had laid a decent foundation in Ames. It's probably a little of both, but Rhoads certainly deserves credit for one major improvement.
He's the one who hired Wally Burnham.