Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It hasn't been easy for Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud being the only experienced quarterback for the Cyclones most of this season.
Arnaud has toned down his natural aggression as a runner and done something that he never considered doing in the past. When defenders have closed on him in the open field, the rugged 230-pound Arnaud said that he has gone against his natural competitive instincts as an athlete and taken to sliding to avoid contact.
"It just doesn't feel right to me, but it's something I've learned to adapt," said Arnaud, who has played nearly every snap since backup Phillip Bates left the team on Oct. 9. "I've been more conscious obviously with running. I had never done that before."
Heading into the Cyclones' regular-season finale against Kansas State on Saturday, Arnaud will be finishing what has been a mostly disappointing sophomore season.
Despite strong individual statistics, Arnaud has seen the Cyclones lose their last nine games after starting the season 2-0. The season has been marked by several near misses including an overtime loss at UNLV, a loss at Colorado settled on the last play of the game and a 35-33 defeat at Kansas where ISU squandered a 20-0 halftime lead.
"There have been a lot of shortcomings for us and there have been some bitter outcomes," Arnaud said. "But I feel like I've learned some invaluable lessons along the way that will help me in the future."
Arnaud passed for 326 yards in last week's 52-20 loss to Missouri. He also notched a school-record 36 completions. In the process he accounted for 367 yards of total offense.
"The biggest thing for me is that I feel I'm getting relaxed and more comfortable in the pocket," Arnaud said. "Earlier, I would get happy feet like any younger player. But I look around the conference and see some of the more veteran players. Ultimately, I'd like to be like them where it looks like they are so comfortable they are almost asleep. That's what I'm trying to do, learning as I go."
ISU coach Gene Chizik has been pleased with Arnaud's development, particularly considering what he's been through without a trusted backup.
"He's gained a lot of confidence over the last eight weeks," Chizik said. "That isn't necessarily reflected in terms of the numbers. But he's become our team leader and has gained confidence in himself."
Chizik remains adamant about protecting the redshirts of freshman quarterbacks Brett Bueker and Jerome Tiller in the Kansas State game. If Arnaud should be injured against the Wildcats, Chizik has developed a package that would insert starting wide receiver Darius Darks into the game as the quarterback.
Darks is a converted high school quarterback who has some ability at the position. The Cyclones also have developed an emergency package with direct snaps to the tailback, similar to what was used last week when Alexander Robinson replaced Arnaud for a play after he was briefly injured.
But Arnaud has mostly kept playing, despite the toll of the constant pounding this season.
"He's a tough guy who has commanded respect from playing hurt," Chizik said. "He's been dinged up but he's still out there playing because that we have no other option and all the kids see that."
Arnaud has been pleased with his development but realizes he needs to continue to grow. His pass efficiency rating ranks 11th in the conference, ahead of only Colorado's Cody Hawkins.
"I've gotten better as a player, but I'm still light years from where I need to be," Arnaud said. "I just need to be so much better and more precise."
A leaky Kansas State defense that ranks last in the conference and 114th nationally (allowing an average of 465 yards per game) should give him some chances for success in Saturday's finale.
"It would mean wonders for the program if we would be able to win," Arnaud said. "We're treating this game as our first game of next season. They are in the same position as we are in. We just want to be ready when we play and have a good game to finish the season."
Arnaud's improvement gives Chizik hope for the future after winning only five times in his first two seasons with the Cyclones.
"Austen hasn't played perfect and there are many decisions he probably wishes he could take back," Chizik said. "But we've seen flashes of him becoming a quarterback who can win in this league. This has been a great learning experience for him this season."