AMES, Iowa (AP) Iowa State spent years trying to figure out what it had in quarterback Sam Richardson. The Cyclones have learned he might be their most valuable player.
Richardson set a school record with 37 completions in Iowa State's 37-30 win over Toledo last weekend. He also threw for 351 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while rallying the Cyclones (2-4, 0-3 Big 12) past the Rockets and keeping their slim bowl hopes alive.
Richardson, a junior, has thrown 10 TD passes with just four picks through six games and is Iowa State's leading rusher with 283 yards.
Richardson's numbers aren't overwhelming, but hold up considering the injuries that have decimated Iowa State's receiving corps and its ongoing struggle with the running game.
''Sam's level of play has been very important in keeping us competitive,'' Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. ''He was really, really good in the second half in that (Toledo) game and we need him to remain that way and even keep improving.''
The Cyclones travel to face Texas (2-4, 1-2) on Saturday.
In hindsight, Richardson's remarkable 2012 debut - 23 of 27 passing for 250 yards and four TDs off the bench at Kansas - looks more like a fluke than an indicator of future performance.
But Richardson is also better now than he looked last year while fighting through injuries to his throwing thumb and leg during what was essentially a lost sophomore season. He completed 55 percent of his passes, threw six interceptions and lost the starting job to Grant Rohach.
Richardson fell even further behind in spring ball, but made vast improvements in fall practice, impressing Rhoads and offensive coordinator Mark Mangino so much that they made him the starter again.
So far, it looks like Rhoads and Mangino made the right call.
Since a close loss to No. 14 Kansas State on Sept. 6, Richardson has thrown nine TD passes with just one interception. He was arguably the best player in the 20-17 win at Iowa, throwing for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and he ran for 99 yards in the Cyclones' loss No. 4 Baylor on Sept. 27.
Against Toledo, Richardson threw all three TD passes in the second half as Iowa State overcame a shaky start by stepping up its offensive tempo.
''We've grown a lot as an offense, and the trust is continuing to grow,'' Richardson said.
Though the weapons around Richardson have diminished, but his progress hasn't.
Iowa State lost wide receiver Quenton Bundrage - perhaps the program's most talented player - for the season in the opener, and promising sophomore P.J. Harris is also out for the rest of 2014.
Senior sparkplug Jarvis West missed last week's win with a foot injury, though Rhoads expects him to return against the Longhorns.
The Cyclones also haven't gotten more than 3.4 yards per carry from any of their top three running backs, so defenses haven't had to worry too much about getting beat on the ground.
Yet, if the rest of the team can mirror Richardson's improvement, the Cyclones might push for a bowl bid despite a 1-4 start.
''The main thing is wanting to hit more deep balls in games and taking advantage of those. But I feel pretty comfortable back there, especially with the front that we have, and the receivers are going make plays when the ball is there,'' Richardson said.
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