For most of Thursday night's 27-10 win over Northern Illinois, Austen Arnaud looked like a different player than the one who struggled in 2009. Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said his quarterback was the most improved player of any on his entire team, and Arnaud proved Rhoads right most of the time. He completed 17 of 22 passes in the first half, and finished with a solid 27-of-36, 265-yard stat line.
On four separate occasions, he completed high-pressure passes on third down to extend drives. Once, on an 11-yard checkdown to Alexander Robinson -- who finished with 97 yards including a 63-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. Another -- on the same drive -- featured a strike to Darius Darks for a 15-yard reception on 3rd-and-14. The next drive saw Collin Franklin catch a 16-yard pass on the sideline to convert a 3rd-and-7. Jake Williams caught another 16-yard pass on 3rd-and-15.
When Arnaud was good, he was very good. He succeeded in plenty of tight spots that might have been turnovers last year.
But troubling for Arnaud's night were a pair of interceptions -- something Cyclones fans might have expected from the 2009 edition of their quarterback. Arnaud threw 13 picks last season, more than all but one passer in the conference.
The first was a forced pass through the middle of a defense that could have been intercepted by two defenders. The mistake was inconsequential, after Northern Illinois failed to convert on three separate field goal attempts from 33 yards. The Huskies got three tries, courtesy of a pair of icing attempts by Rhoads in the form of late timeouts.
The second would have been a wise, comfortable checkdown to put the Cyclones in the red zone -- if Arnaud's intended target was Northern Illinois' Tyrone Clark. Arnaud dumped a pass to no one in particular and turned it over, robbing his team of a chance to to go up 24-3 in the third quarter.
On an otherwise sterling night that also featured 14 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown -- not counting a 53-yard touchdown run called back for an illegal formation -- Arnaud will likely most closely scrutinize those interceptions in the film room.
Iowa State can beat plenty of teams on its brutal schedule. They'll have a shot at beating Utah during nonconference play and only four games -- at Iowa, at Oklahoma, at Texas and Nebraska -- look like reaches for the Cyclones. A bowl game is definitely possible for a team that looked like the Big 12 North's third-best on Thursday night.
But the Cyclones won't get there if Arnaud can't prevent those bad decisions that resulted in turnovers. They'll need an Arnaud who calmly led his team and converted again and again on third down during their win against Northern Illinois.